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Blatant gaps seen in Duterte's South China Sea policy

In this Oct. 12, 2016 photo, President Rodrigo Duterte shows a newspaper featuring the Chinese-funded mega drug treatment and rehabilitation center, which is expected to be fully operational in November. This photo is taken at the 115th anniversary of Philippine Coast Guard in Port Area, Manila. PPD/King Rodriguez

MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte's foreign policy toward China, marked by his flip-flopping remarks on maritime concerns over the South China Sea and Benham Rise, still baffles observers.

On Sunday, Duterte had an evidently defeatist reaction to reports that China is building a monitoring station on Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal, a feature acknowledged by last year's arbitral tribunal ruling as a common fishing ground. The Philippines also considers the area part of Zambales province.

"We cannot stop China from doing its thing. Even the Americans were not able to stop them," Duterte said at a news conference in Davao City. "So what do you want me to do? Declare war against China?"

The Department of National Defense (DND) had several times expressed concern over Chinese activities in the disputed waters and recently revealed that it has observed Sino survey vessels in Benham Rise, a vast, potentially resource-rich undersea plateau that extends the Philippines' continental shelf.

Duterte, on the other hand, was more dismissive, claiming that the government was apprised of China's plan to conduct research in the newly claimed area. But the DND and the Department of Foreign Affairs said they are not aware of such an agreement.

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For foreign affairs analyst Richard Heydarian of the De La Salle University, there is a disparity between the policy gleaned from Duterte's rhetoric and that practiced by concerned executive departments.

"There are clearly blatant gaps here," Heydarian told Philstar.com in an email. "Especially between Duterte's highly cordial if not sentimental statements towards China and its supposed generosity and love for the Philippines, on one hand, and more nuanced and realistic concerns raised by his defense and foreign ministry officials, who are clearly troubled by China's maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea and Benham Rise, on the other."

Strategy or system dissonance?

In contrast to the Aquino administration's predictable policy toward China, particularly on the South China Sea issue especially in its latter years, the Duterte government's approach has been largely inconsistent.

While the objective of having an "independent" foreign policy is notable, Duterte expresses it with contempt for the United States, the country's traditional ally, and admiration for "unlikely" partners Russia and China, said political scientist Aries Arugay of the University of the Philippines.

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"While the intentions are notably laudable, namely the pursuit of independence and equidistance from all major powers, there is current confusion stemming from policy incoherence, inconsistency, and seemingly uncoordinated implementation among government agencies," Arugay wrote in a China Policy Institute analysis.

Heydarian said that while it is possible that the Duterte administration is playing a "good cop, bad cop" diplomatic strategy toward China, it may also be a result of "system dissonance that is creating unnecessary confusion about our foreign policy."

Dealing with a two-faced China

President Rodrigo Duterte meets with Chinese businessmen at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Beijing, China on Oct. 21, 2016 before leaving for Davao City. PPD/Toto Lozano

Rather than seriously considering next steps in the longstanding sea row, Duterte also seems to be focused on Beijing's economic grants, most recently the offer of $10 billion worth of assistance.

"Let me publicly again thank President Xi Jinping and the Chinese people for loving us and giving us enough leeway to survive the rigors of economic life in this planet," Duterte said.

Heydarian suggested that while China is showing some good will in that respect, it also seems intent on expanding its footprint in the region, particularly in the South China Sea and Scarborough Shoal.

"The way forward is to draw the line when necessary and make it clear that Chinese economic incentives aren't going to soften our resolve on defending our territorial integrity," Heydarian said.

"Otherwise, we may risk either undermining the credibility of our territorial defense posture or/and make the other party presume that we are willing to acquiesce to Chinese economic charm offensive," he added.

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