China will keep working toward a stronger friendship with the Philippines, which it sees as a valuable new ally in Southeast Asia, despite the Philippine president’s comment that Beijing’s top leader once threatened war over a disputed tract of sea, analysts say.
Duterte told a Philippine coast guard unit on May 19 that Chinese President Xi Jinping this month had threatened “war” if the Philippines “forced the issue” over sovereignty of the Spratly Islands, an archipelago of tiny features in the South China Sea, according to widespread media reports in the Philippines.
“They cannot say anything either way, because it would look bad for them,” said Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines in Metro Manila. “So I think it’s difficult for them and probably (they) won’t say anything and just avoid it altogether.”
Beijing claims about 90 percent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea, including the Spratlys. The claim overlaps the exclusive economic zones of the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. Xi and Duterte were talking about oil drilling in the Spratlys at a meeting in Beijing when Xi made the comments, Philippine media say.
China probably did not want the war comment disclosed and political experts say Beijing may speak more cautiously with Duterte’s government in the future.
But analysts say Beijing will avoid any retaliation for the disclosure because it sees Duterte trying to improve relations after a stormy past. The president has thundered against China’s major global rival and former Philippine colonizer, the United States. He has visited China twice, and the two sides sat down this month to start working out their maritime differences.
Last week Duterte traveled to Russia to sign a series of agreements. Russia is a traditional Chinese ally that like China was not on Manila’s roster of friends a year ago when Duterte took office.
Duterte, a populist known for being loose with language, also has a reputation for making comments against other countries. He has slammed the United Nations, the United States and the European Union over their criticism of an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 extrajudicial killings in the Philippine anti-drug campaign.
“I think as long as there’s not any substantive action on the part of the Philippines to follow through with any of its rhetoric, they’re willing to let it slide at least to some extent because Duterte seems to be badmouthing everyone,” said Maxfield Brown, business intelligence associate at the consultancy Dezan Shira & Associates in Manila.
“It’s not like China is the sole recipient of this," Brown said.
A mellow Chinese response to the comment about war could in turn allay any fear in other countries about their own relations with Beijing. Each has its own way of handling China based on historical relations, Batongbacal said.
Beijing has increasingly valued its relations in Southeast Asia since July 2016, when a world arbitration court ruled against the legal basis to much of China’s maritime claim. China had incensed countries in Southeast Asia with a half-decade of building artificial islands and passing coast guard vessels through contested waters.
China rejected the ruling, but to minimize its impact the government it wants to talk with the other countries, in some cases offering them aid. Duterte received pledges of $24 billion in aid and investment from China in October.
Beijing and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed last week after 15 years of resistance – largely because of China -- to a framework for a code of conduct that would eventually prevent mishaps in the sea that’s prized for fisheries and fossil fuel reserves.
“It’s highly unlikely that there there’s going to be an escalation of tension (that would) lead to physical confrontation regarding the territorial and sovereignty issues,” said Andrew Yang, secretary-general with the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies think tank in Taiwan.
“All the intention and behavior taking place basically is trying to satisfy those disputes and try to find out what would be acceptable for a code of conduct,” he said.
The presidential office softened Duterte’s comment about war days after he made it. His spokesman Ernesto Abella said on the office website the two sides would keep seeking peace.
“President Duterte was forthright about its economic rights awarded by the Arbitral Court in The Hague, a claim the Chinese leader said they would vigorously contest given their historic claims to the area,” Abella said. “Given this complexity, both parties agreed to pursue a more peaceful resolution to the matter that satisfies both our sovereign and economic rights.”