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Duterte Backs Off Hawkish Rhetoric Over Spratly Islands

Duterte Backs Off Hawkish Rhetoric Over Spratly Islands

Territorial claims in the Spratly Islands. (Sydney Morning Herald)

The unpredictable Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, has again changed course in the South China Sea, cancelling his plans to plant a flag on Pag-asa (Thitu) Island over Philippine Independence Day on June 12th. Duterte’s reversal came immediately after Beijing threatened “there will likely be trouble” should every head of state wish to plant a flag on islands in the disputed South China Sea. Duterte also clarified an earlier statement, saying the Philippines intends to reinforce, not militarize, areas in the South China Sea controlled by Manila.

The need for the reversal and clarification follows earlier remarks during a visit to a Philippine military camp on Palawan island on April 6th. In those statements, Duterte riled Beijing, Hanoi and other governments by ordering his troops to occupy islands and reefs in the disputed South China Sea. Duterte also asked the Philippine military to build structures on all of the Philippine-held islands, reefs and shoals in the contested Spratly Islands. The Philippines occupies nine of some 50 islands and reefs that it claims in the Spratly island chain, while Vietnam and Taiwan occupy other features in the chain.

On Palawan, addressing his military, Duterte stated “We tried to be friends with everybody but we have to maintain our jurisdiction now, at least the areas under our control. And I have ordered the armed forces to occupy all these.” Without naming Beijing, Duterte further explained, “It looks like everybody is making a grab for the islands there, so we better live on those that are still vacant,” while adding, “What’s ours now, at least let’s get them and make a strong point there that it is ours.” China has been widely criticized for constructing seven man-made islands in the Spratlys and militarizing them with surface-to-air missiles, airstrips and military equipment and infrastructure.

The April 6 nationalistic rhetoric surprised many analysts—as it followed months of reconciliation with Beijing, including the courting of billions in aid and investment from China on a recent visit to Beijing. Since assuming the presidency last summer, Duterte has played a weak hand, by failing to assert a landmark ruling by an international court last July. The ruling, first filed by his predecessor Benigno Aquino, rejected Chinese maritime claims in favor of Manila.

Duterte’s comments on Palawan island were seen by many analysts as catering to his audience, the Philippine military. But his follow-up comments signal Duterte is still reluctant to anger his much larger and stronger neighbor. The seeming ease with which Beijing toned down Duterte’s patriotic and hawkish rhetoric puts this nationalistic strongman in a difficult position, coming ahead of talks between government leaders from Beijing and Manila on the disputed waters in China in May.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666