Balancing or capitulation? Duterte ban on West PH Sea drills leaves gap in global move to curb China

President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to ban the Philippines from participating in West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) naval drills drew some mixed reactions, but experts agree it leaves a gap that will affect a global move to curb China. 

It’s also a lost opportunity for the country's ill-equipped navy  to enhance its capabilities. 

Duterte has kept a standing order on the military to not participate in naval exercises in the disputed seas, a regular activity between the Philippines and allies in the past, even as the country also reaffirmed in July the same arbitral ruling that it has shelved for 4 years. 

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana reiterated this policy on Monday, August 3. It was in October 2016 when Lorenzana first informed the US Pacific Command of Duterte's decision. A month before, Duterte had publicly declared his intention to stop joint maritime patrols in the West Philippine Sea.

“We will not join any expedition or patrolling. I will not allow it because I do not want my country to be involved in a hostile act,” Duterte had said.

The Philippine Navy is a “light weight in the region,” but the ban is important for its “strategic message,” said Alexander Vuving of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) in Hawaii.

“The lack of Philippine cooperation will force the US to strengthen defense ties with Taiwan and Vietnam to compensate for this gap,” Alexander Vuving of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) in Hawaii told Rappler in an e-mail interview. 

The US-China strategic competition has depended in large part on the geography of Asia, where transoceanic routes for trillions of dollars worth of trade each year have turned into choke points that constituted the central theater of great power competition. 

“The Philippines is one of the places from which one can dominate some of these choke points, most notably the Luzon Strait and the South China Sea, which has become a choke point thanks to China’s building of large artificial islands in the middle of the sea,” Vuving said. 

The US sent two aircraft carrier strike groups to the South China Sea in July to conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) to “show unambiguous signal to our partners and allies that we are committed to regional security and stability.”

“[The ban] is an unfortunate decision. The Philippine Navy has several new ships and really needs the training. And if the US is not going to lead it, then who else will?,” said Southeast Asia expert Zachary Abuza of the US National War College. 

“As the Chinese demonstrates on a daily basis, presence really matters [in the South China Sea],” Abuza said.

The US activities followed a statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the South China Sea – its strongest policy yet on the contentious part of the region – which came after a trilateral meeting with Australia and Japan that outlines cooperation in a wide range of issues involving China. 

Other claimant countries have also issued new challenges against China, upholding Philippine victory at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which dismissed Beijing’s nine-dash-claim over almost all of the South China Sea.  

Balance or capitulation?

Duterte’s ban reflects “total capitulation” to China, said Abuza. 

“This is the latest in a pattern of Duterte capitulating to China, de facto-ceding territory that was hard-fought through the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling, which until this past week, Duterte has never referenced. It is total capitulation,” Abuza said. 

Vuving said it suggests that “Manila would cave in to Chinese aggression” and signals that “the Philippines under Duterte would stay neutral both strategically and operationally in the larger Sino-US competition.”

“Tellingly, the ban fits well with China’s version of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, which proscribes joint exercises with an extra-regional country. Thus, the ban also signals Manila’s alignment with China in the negotiation of the Code of Conduct, which China wanted to conclude by 2021,” said Vuving. 

Duterte’s policy will have “long term implications on our national security, economy and dignity,” warned former Marine captain and ex-opposition lawmaker Gary Alejano. 

“It is definitely a big letdown to all of us and the international community watching the South China Sea developments. Duterte’s subservience to China has become clearer through the years using unreasonable justifications,” Alejano said. 

But former Philippine Navy Vice Commander and retired Rear Admiral Rommel Jude Ong said the ban should be seen from a holistic view. 

“We can see a nuanced balancing of our engagement with our allies and strategic partners to mitigate our absence in the South China Sea,” said Ong, who serves as the executive director of Security Reform Initiative (SRI). 

Ong said the ban will not affect the Philippine’s alliance and strategic partnership with like-minded navies. He said the navy also continues to patrol the Kalayaan Island Group by sea and air, sustain its marine and ground forces in the occupied maritime features, and just recently improved facilities on Pag-Asa Island. 

He also cited the participation of the Philippine Navy’s brand new frigate – BRP Jose Rizal – in the US-led RIMPAC exercises in Hawaii.

Important FONOPs

Ong said the “game has changed” with the recent statements from the US and Australia, citing the PCA ruling to reject Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea. He also cited the US declaration of a “red line” at the Scarborough Shoal against any construction attempts from China. 

“Before that, the Philippines bore the burden of following through on the Hague ruling of July 12, 2016, since we were the only party involved. Hence, any directive limiting our navy’s actions in the West Philippine Sea benefited China,” he said. 

He said US embrace of the PCA ruling “as if it was their own” means “restraining our Navy from participating in any naval activity in the South China Sea will not diminish or affect the efforts of other countries from countering China's excessive claims in the disputed waters.”

But Abuza said FONOPs is very important because “unfortunately, the US has no strategy for dealing with China beyond FONOPS, despite Secretary of State Pompeo's tough talk,” he said. 

“We have alienated friends and allies, walked away from the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) and other international regimes. We are very much a one-legged stool,” Abuza said. 

Alejano said Duterte’s policies have all been confusing to the military.

“Our military is rendered confused and disoriented due to unclear and compromising policy stand of the Duterte administration as regards to the West Philippine Sea,” said Alejano. 

China occupies Mischief Reef, a maritime feature that the tribunal  ruled belongs to the Philippines, while its vessels continue to criss-cross Philippine waters despite Duterte’s friendship with Beijing.

“It also sends a clear signal to China and the whole world that Filipinos can't stand when abused and oppressed by other countries,” Alejano said. – Rappler.com