A case of “too late the hero” or a ruse to appease China? Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has instructed the Navy to turn away all foreign vessels conducting research on the country’s disputed islands. In 2017, Duterte allowed Chinese vessels entry in waters off the island of Benham Rise for the purpose of collecting data for research.
Benham Rise is one of the islands declared in 2012 by the United Nations as part of the Philippines’ continental shelf. In a statement published by Philippine Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Pinol in Facebook, Duterte reiterated the country’s sovereignty over the Benham Rise which was renamed “Philippine Rise” last year:
“Let me be very clear about this: the Philippine Rise is ours and any insinuation that it is open to everybody should end with this declaration.”
However last January 15, the Philippine President discreetly endorsed China’s research activities on Philippine Rise. The endorsement was not made directly by the President but his spokesman, Harry Roque.
In an interview last February 7, Presidential Spokesman Roque said the Philippines should be grateful to China for those islands:
“There will come a time when China’s might has ceased, when we will have to thank them for those islands. Clearly, eventually, those artificial islands will be ours if we can ask China to leave.”
Thank China “for those islands”? Ask China to leave islands that President Duterte now says belongs to the Philippines?
In 2015, the Department of Foreign Affairs estimated the damage resulting from China’s activities in the West Philippine Sea to have reached $100 Billion. This includes the destruction of 300 acres of coral reefs.
But Philippine Rise is not in the South China Sea and China has not made any claim to it.
In an apparent about-face from his position just 1 day earlier, Roque said all fishing licenses in the area have been revoked. No clear explanation was given for the decision except that it was a “national security issue”.
“Our sovereign right is unquestioned. All licenses are deemed cancelled. There are no foreign entities conducting scientific research.”
Interestingly before the Duterte’s administration change of heart, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said a Chinese research ship with 4 Philippine scientists on-board had completed its scientific mission in the Philippines.
Since assuming the presidency, Duterte has openly stated his preference for establishing foreign policy toward China. He has rejected all forms of aid and donations from the European Union (EU) because the group questioned his policy on the “War on Drugs”.
But in 2017, Duterte secured a $24 Billion loan from China of which to date the terms and conditions have not been disclosed to Congress.
Lately, the Philippine government has found itself under the radar of the international community for allowing China to set up military structures in the disputed islands despite securing the favourable decision from the United Nations.
Duterte has repeatedly capitalised on the “war rhetoric” saying the country would be powerless versus China.
However considering China has planned to invest trillions of dollars to fund its ambitious “One Road One Belt” initiative, the last thing Beijing should want is war to erupt in a region where its infrastructure would run through.