A few days later, however, through his spokesperson, Duterte once again weighed in. He delivered a scathing rebuke of the US, doubting whether the Philippines could count on its ally in case of a full-blown conflict with China. The following day, the president appeared on television to bear his grudge against the Washington, declaring that Filipinos should not depend on the US for help. He maintained that he would not go to war with the Chinese, insisting that he considered China a “good friend”.
But even worse was yet to come. On May 5, Duterte declared that the 2016 arbitral ruling was nothing more than a piece of scrap paper. He noted that, while he had acknowledged the judgement that legally rejected China’s nine-dash-line claim in the South China Sea, nothing happened. He questioned whether the decision could even be enforced, admitting that in a conflict the country with the stronger military usually prevailed.
On national television, the president’s message to his people and the world was clear: He is clinging on to his China appeasement policy until his term ends in June 2022.The divergent statements and positions emanating from the president, the AFP, the defense and foreign secretaries during the stand-off with China reflect internal divisions in Duterte’s administration. This clash involves key government officials who want to balance China’s growing naval power in the South China Sea, and those who believe that the path to resolving the territorial row peacefully is through diplomacy, economic cooperation, and mollifying Beijing. The latter want to continue the administration’s appeasement policy, while the former are pushing for the government to challenge and even confront the Chinese over their growing naval presence in the South China Sea.
The quarrel led to the administration to pursue a policy of “soft balancing” as reflected by its initial tentative confrontational reaction to the presence of the Chinese fishing boats. Then domestic politics and nationalist sentiment became a factor. The adverse public opinion against China’s maritime activities and the possibility of US involvement forced Duterte to backtrack. The president ended up taking the realist approach, hewing his position to China’s – that the stand-off had to be resolved through a joint bilateral consultative committee and cordial consultations. But with Philippine presidential elections less than a year away, the China issue will be a key issue for debate. In its remaining months, expect the administration to continue its dazed-and-confused approach as it struggles to balance major-power geopolitics with competing political and economic interests on the home front.