LIKE the dog that didn’t bark in the night, Chinese coastguard vessels around one tidal atoll in the South China Sea have recently distinguished themselves through inaction. For the past four years—ever since Philippine naval inspectors tried to arrest some Chinese fishermen for illegally harvesting endangered species—Chinese ships have blocked Filipino fishermen from plying their trade near Scarborough Shoal. This week, however, Philippine television has shown fishermen returning from the shoal grinning, their boats full.
After China began its blockade, the president of the day, Benigno Aquino, filed a complaint against it at an international tribunal in The Hague, which ruled in the Philippines’ favour earlier this year. The shoal, after all, is only some 220km from the Philippine mainland, within its exclusive economic zone, but almost 900km from China. Mr Aquino also signed an Enhanced Defence Co-operation Agreement (EDCA) with America, which lets American troops operate out of five Philippine military bases. He called for a military response from America were China to begin building on the shoal—as it has on several other disputed reefs and islets in the South China Sea.
In June, however, Rodrigo Duterte replaced Mr Aquino as president, and changed course abruptly. He has announced an end to joint Philippine-American military exercises and threatened to abrogate the EDCA. To drive this shift home, on a state visit to China two weeks ago, he announced his “separation” from America, and told his hosts: “I have realigned myself in your ideological flow…I will be dependent on you for all time.”
Following this display of fealty, China promised billions of dollars in loans and investment, and ended its blockade of Scarborough. The message for the other South-East Asian nations with competing claims in the South China Sea could not be clearer: accept China’s sovereignty and riches will follow. Najib Razak, Malaysia’s embattled prime minister, turned up in Beijing this week cap in hand.
Not only has Mr Duterte completely undermined America’s efforts to preserve a united front by other littoral states against China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, he has also saved Xi Jinping, China’s leader, from a dilemma. After the adverse ruling from the tribunal, hardliners in China, especially in the military, were urging Mr Xi to hit back by, for example, building an air strip on Scarborough Shoal. Others argued that his tough line was already too risky, so he should adopt a more emollient approach. Thanks to Mr Duterte, China has got most of what it wanted—most notably, bilateral talks, which it has long asked for but the Philippines had rejected—without lifting a finger.
Nonetheless, China should be wary of interpreting Mr Duterte’s enthusiasm for Chinese investment as acquiescence. A justice on the Philippine supreme court has warned Mr Duterte that ceding the shoal would be unconstitutional, and thus an impeachable offence. Among Filipinos, America remains broadly popular, and China broadly loathed. And while Mr Duterte is telling the Chinese leadership what they want to hear, he has said seemingly contradictory things in Japan and Vietnam, both of which also have maritime disputes with China.
In Vietnam Mr Duterte stressed the need for maritime “freedom of navigation and overflight [and] unimpeded commerce…particularly in the South China Sea”. A joint statement in Japan emphasised respect for the UN treaty on which the tribunal’s ruling on Scarborough Shoal was based. China, for its part, may also be double-dealing: it seems to be letting Filipinos fish around the atoll, but not inside the huge lagoon it forms, as they used to.