Philippine election: will China and Whitsun Reef dispute loom large?

·9-min read

This is the second in a two-part series on the potential impacts of presidential elections in the region on relations with China and the United States. Here, Sarah Zheng examines how territorial disputes with Beijing could influence next year’s Philippine poll.

Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea are threatening to become a central issue in next year’s Philippine presidential election, as tensions flare over Chinese vessels’ presence near features in the disputed waters.

Analysts say President Rodrigo Duterte’s approach to Beijing’s increasingly aggressive assertions in the waters will influence the position of contenders to succeed him in the vote next May, which Duterte cannot contest because of the one-term limit.

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Manila’s efforts to challenge China’s claimed sovereignty over most of the energy-rich sea were backed by an international tribunal’s 2016 verdict that most of Beijing’s claims had no legal basis, but Duterte has previously said he would “set aside” the ruling.

The sensitivity of the issue has surfaced again, however, with disputes this year over Whitsun Reef and Scarborough Shoal – encapsulated this week when Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr tweeted that China should “get the f*** out”.

Using his personal Twitter account, Locsin demanded China remove its ships from features inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone but also within Beijing’s nine-dash line. He tweeted: “China, my friend, how politely can I put it? Let me see … get the f*** out. What are you doing to our friendship? You. Not us. We’re trying. You.”

Locsin later apologised to China’s ambassador in the Philippines. But Duterte’s attempts to defuse the situation underlined the delicate balance Manila must strike as it builds stronger ties with Beijing while honouring its historical loyalties to the United States, whose backing helps it to counter Beijing in the South China Sea.

“China remains our benefactor,” Duterte said in a taped televised briefing on Monday, hours after Locsin’s tweet. “Just because we have a conflict with China doesn’t mean to say that we have to be rude and disrespectful.”

Duterte has expressed a willingness to send military ships into the South China Sea to “stake a claim” to oil resources there, but said it would be “bloody” to challenge China there.

The battle for Duterte’s job is expected to be hotly contested by candidates such as his daughter and Davao City mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, and senator and professional boxer Manny Pacquiao, as well as candidates that may be fielded by the 1Sambayan anti-Duterte coalition, such as Leni Robredo, the Philippine vice-president, and Senator Grace Poe.

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Sara Duterte last week had the most backing among possible presidential contenders in a survey by Pulse Asia, with 27 per cent, followed by the namesake son of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and former senator Bongbong Marcos, with 13 per cent each, then Poe and Manila’s mayor Isko Moreno, with 12 per cent apiece.

However, Sara Duterte said last week she would not run for the presidency – which her father claims is no job for a woman.

“I made a chart where I listed the whys and why-nots before I decided that I am not going to run,” she said, adding that she had not told her father the reasons.

Jeffrey Ordaniel, director of the maritime programme at Honolulu-based foreign policy research institute the Pacific Forum, said he expected foreign policy to feature prominently in 2022 – unlike in previous presidential elections – and the China policy of presidential candidates to be scrutinised more in the wake of the dispute at Whitsun Reef, which the Philippines calls Julian Felipe Reef.

“Rodrigo Duterte has accommodated many of Beijing’s policy preferences, including downplaying the 2016 arbitration award on the South China Sea issue,” Ordaniel said. “But with what’s happening at Whitsun Reef and the continued marginalisation of Filipino fishers, the policy is becoming indefensible.”

Despite criticism over his foreign policy and his management of the pandemic, Duterte has maintained high approval ratings. A poll conducted in mid-March by PUBLiCUS Asia found that he had a 65 per cent approval rating, down slightly from 70 per cent in December.

Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that he did not think the Whitsun Reef dispute had affected Duterte’s approach to China, because he seemed “willing to continue with the idea that the Philippines has no remedy”.

“I do think China-Philippines relations will be an issue in the next election,” he said. “But with so many serious domestic issues in the Philippines – the economy, Covid-19 – I’m not sure how big an issue it will be.”

Those issues intersect, with the Philippines seeking to increase vaccine supplies from China even as the two nations face off at sea.

China was also the Philippines’ top trading partner in 2020. The latest monthly figures showed that exports from the Philippines to China reached US$639 million in February, 12 per cent of total Philippine exports, and China was the largest supplier of imports, making up nearly 25 per cent of the total at US$1.9 billion.

The Philippines has received billions in Chinese infrastructure investment through Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative as Manila has pivoted closer to China under Duterte.

Derek Grossman, a senior defence expert at the Rand Corporation, said it was difficult to say how large an obstacle Duterte’s pro-China policies would be in the election, since he remained very popular.

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“I can envision, however, a hardening of anti-Chinese sentiment among the population from the Whitsun or Julian Felipe Reef and other transgressions that might give his daughter Sara some difficulty if she decides to run,” he said.

The next Philippine president will also have to contend with the growing strategic rivalry between China and the United States, with which it has a mutual defence treaty.

Duterte’s anti-American stances and overtures to Beijing in recent years have put pressure on the US-Philippines alliance, including his suspension of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a two-decade-old arrangement allowing US troop deployment in the Philippines. He has demanded Washington quadruple its aid to resume it.

Xu Liping, a Southeast Asian specialist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, said China and the South China Sea would play a role during presidential debates and on the campaign trail, but it would be difficult for a new president to entirely overhaul Duterte’s China strategy given the increasing cooperation between the countries.

“The Philippines is a complicated country, because it used to be a US colony,” he said. “In China, we are looking to see whether the next president will balance between great powers rather than choose sides.”

But Grossman said that no matter who became the next Philippines leader, they would value the relationship with the US because no other country could help Manila hedge against Chinese assertiveness. He said Duterte himself recognised the importance of the VFA in a speech in February, despite bashing the US for political reasons.

“This leads me to believe that the Philippines is sticking right by America’s side, whether that is preferable or not,” he said. “[Duterte’s] recent comments challenging China only reaffirm that the US will remain Manila’s staunch ally. I expect a resurrected or renegotiated VFA to be publicised in the coming months.”

Under US President Joe Biden, Washington has sought to bolster ties with its Indo-Pacific allies. Grossman said Biden’s administration recognised the damage done to Washington’s credibility by its lack of response during the 2012 Scarborough Shoal stand-off between China and the Philippines, which led to Beijing’s militarisation of the feature.

In April, amid Whitsun Reef tensions, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed that the mutual defence treaty with the Philippines applied to the South China Sea.

Richard Heydarian, professorial chairholder in geopolitics at Polytechnic University of the Philippines, said some of Duterte’s allies were frustrated with his handling of relations with China.

“And in broader Philippine public opinion, Duterte’s China policies have failed,” Heydarian said. “They have not brought about any major gain to the Philippines in the South China Sea.”

Even on economic engagement with China, planned infrastructure projects had not started, adding to calls for a stronger line against Beijing, he said – yet the VFA’s suspension last year had added uncertainty.

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“The VFA is in limbo, and this complicates US efforts to conduct large-scale exercises and long-term planning,” Heydarian said.

“The Philippines provides the US significant leeway to project power in the region. If China keeps the Philippines away from the US, this will make it more difficult for the Americans to deter China.”

Ordaniel, who is also an assistant professor at Tokyo International University, said the US military’s forward-deployed presence via the VFA was critical to its deterrence efforts against Chinese actions in the South China Sea.

“It’s simply more difficult to deter China in maritime Southeast Asia from places like Guam, Okinawa or Darwin,” he said, referencing US military bases. “They’re too far away. It is also important that Manila continues to mirror Washington’s interpretation of international law related to navigational rights and freedoms, a major point of contention between China and the US.”

Grossman said that China may have missed an opportunity to court closer ties with the Philippines while there were tensions over the VFA.

“Beijing could have exploited the situation by offering Duterte everything under the sun while keeping it quiet in the South China Sea, but for some unknown reason, China was instead full steam ahead in challenging Philippine sovereignty,” he said. “Chinese assertiveness only seems to have strengthened the US-Philippines alliance against China.”

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