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In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte says China is threatening war in the South China Sea if the status quo is not respected.

In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte says China is threatening war in the South China Sea if the status quo is not respected.


My understanding is that there will be problems if we insist on going to the West Philippine Sea on our own. China will go to war, he added.

Duterte also denied ever having reached a gentlemen's deal with Xi that would involve the loss of his country's territorial rights, and that the only thing they agreed on was to maintain the status quo in the disputed waters, that is. i.e. no new facilities or infrastructure.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands after a signing ceremony in Beijing on October 20, 2016. Photo: Reuters

Apart from the handshake with President Xi Jinping, the only thing I remember was the status quo. That’s the word, Duterte said.

Last week, Harry Roquewho had served as spokesperson during the Dutertes presidency, explained the reason for the recent Chinese decision water cannon attacks on Philippine ships in March, which left three sailors injured, could be due to the gentleman's agreement he claimed Duterte and Xi had reached.

Roque speculated that Beijing believed that Manila's missions to the Second Thomas Bank to resupply the BPS Sierra Madre, a World War II-era naval vessel that was deliberately anchored on the bank to reinforce the territorial claims of the Philippines, constituted a violation of Duterte's unwritten agreement.

During his six years in power, Duterte, who consistently called Xi a very close friend, reoriented the Philippines' foreign policy away from the United States and toward closer ties with China.

China has competing claims in the South China Sea with the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam. In 2016, a UN arbitration tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines, invalidating China's historic claims to much of the region's disputed waters. Beijing, however, has rejected the ruling and continues to insist that it has jurisdiction over everything in its nine-line border claim.

Manila and Washington have a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) that calls on the two countries to assist each other in the event of aggression by an outside power.

On the same day that Duterte gave his press briefing, his successor, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, met with US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the White House for a trilateral summit to discuss a number of topics, including maritime safety. During the meeting, Biden reiterated that the MDT was still in effect and would be honored.
US President Joe Biden escorts Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to their trilateral summit at the White House in Washington on Thursday. Photo: Reuters

The United States' defense commitments to Japan and the Philippines are ironclad, they are ironclad, Biden told the media. Any attack on Philippine aircraft or armed forces in the South China Sea would invoke our Mutual Defense Treaty.

Calibrate alliances

Many observers believe that Marcos Jr has increasingly aligned his country with the United States since taking office in 2022 as a way to counterbalance China. However, political analyst and professor Edmund Tayao of San Beda Law School said he believes the current administration is simply recalibrating relations after the Philippines' rapprochement with China under Duterte.

The only reason we feel like we're looking more to the US is because the previous administration pushed aside our long-standing friendship with the US, he told This Week in Asia.

Tayao said he thought Marcos Jr was doing the right thing, not only by turning to the United States, but by expanding the country's foreign policy options by also strengthening relations with other countries, such as Japan .

The United States and China would think long and hard before doing anything in the South China Sea that risks drawing them into conflict, Tayao argued, emphasizing their economic interdependence on trade.

3:04 p.m.

Why is the Philippines aligning with the United States after years of close relations with China under Duterte?

Why is the Philippines aligning with the United States after years of close relations with China under Duterte?

Renato Cruz De Castro, a professor of international studies at De La Salle University in Manila, told This Week in Asia that the United States would only act to defend the Philippines if it was in its own interest.

We have a conventional relationship with the United States, not because we love each other, but because we face a greater threat, namely China, De Castro said.

We must understand the notion of alliance. The Alliance [members] don't like each other. Alliances are formed because the threat is greater: China. We share a common interest and of course that of preventing China from becoming the dominant power in the region, he added.

Historically, if we consider the case of the First World War, Britain and Germany were economically linked. Similarly, during the Pacific War, Japan and the United States were also linked economically. But once the first shot is fired, economic interdependence doesn't really matter, De Castro warned, adding that Manila must prepare for the inevitable.




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