Just empty talk? Philippines’ Duterte is playing China off against US, analysts say

Kristin Huang | South China Morning Post
Philippine presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte gestures during a labor day campaign rally on May 1, 2016 in Manila, Philippines.
Dondi Tawatao | Getty Images

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte may have said he wants to buy arms from China, but he is simply playing China off against the United States rather than presenting a realistic plan, analysts say.

And the fallout from is far from over, they added.

Duterte told military officers in Manila on Tuesday that he would not allow government forces to conduct joint patrols of disputed waters near the South China Sea with foreign powers, and that he was considering acquiring defense equipment from Russia and China.

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Last week, he said he wanted all American special forces out of the southern Philippines, where they have been advising local troops battling Muslim extremists, but the US said no official order was received.

The acid-tongued Duterte has had an uneasy relationship with the U.S. recently and is also trying to mend ties with China frayed by the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which ruled against China's territorial claims to the South China Sea.

Oh Ei-sun, a senior fellow with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said Duterte's expressed wish to buy Chinese arms could not be interpreted clearly while debate on the international tribunal ruling continues.

"What Duterte is doing is to play the U.S. off against China and vice versa, to hopefully achieve the greatest benefits for the Philippines," Oh said.

"In this regard, he could afford to be more 'severe' and 'colorful' against the U.S., which considers the Philippines to be an important pillar for its rebalancing policy and is thus more restrained in its responses to Duterte's outbursts, than to China, which typically does not take foreign impoliteness or diplomatic slights too lightly.

"I think what Duterte is really looking for is better weapons sales terms from the U.S."

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Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, a Chinese government think tank, said Duterte was testing the U.S. while hoping for greater benefits, especially military goods, even though what he said was unrealistic.

"The Mutual Defence Treaty between the US and the Philippines is a legally binding document approved by the Philippine Supreme Court and a few words from Duterte cannot stop that deep military engagement with the US, which obviously wants to maintain and even boost its geopolitical sway in the region," Wu said.

"China also may not sell weapons to the Philippines as Duterte wishes due to a lack of mutual trust. And it would be embarrassing if the Philippines used Chinese warships to fight against China."

Pres. Obama: Not taking Duterte comments personally

Military observer Zhou Chenming said the Philippines was neither brave nor powerful enough to split from the U.S. Therefore, he said, Duterte's proposal to buy arms from China was mere posturing to please Beijing, which was infuriated by the Hague ruling on the South China Sea, rather than a realistic plan.

"Also, compatibility problems hinder Chinese arms sale to the Philippines, as the latter is accustomed to US-style weaponry, which is totally different from Chinese designs and production," Zhou said.

Ties between the Philippines and China have been strained since the Philippines applied for a ruling on the South China Sea from the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Filipino fishermen have also complained of harassment by Chinese government vessels near the Scarborough Shoal.

Oh, from Singapore, said the oral proposal to buy Chinese weapons could not be seen as a symbol that disputes in the South China Sea were over, as "even if the Philippines does not insist upon the ruling, other Southeast Asian countries would still do so. Similarly, the South China Sea situation is calmer at the moment, but will likely flare up as soon as any claimant acts rashly."

Wu said the ruling could not be easily ignored by the Philippines because the US and Japan would not allow it to do so, as both viewed it as an excuse to contain Chinese assertiveness in the important waterway.

Duterte is famous for his outspokenness.

He referred to US President Barack Obama as a "son of a whore" last week and, less than a month earlier, he addressed the Chinese presence in the disputed waters. "I guarantee to them (China), if you enter here, it will be bloody," he said. "And we will not give it to them easily. It will be the bones of our soldiers, you can include mine."

Oh said: "We can hardly discern the seriousness or real effect of what Duterte blurts out in colorful language on an almost daily basis, only to be typically diluted or explained away by other Philippine officials a short while later. Their flippantly contradictory nature frankly does not inspire confidence in their logical implementation. "

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