Rodrigo Duterte wants bilateral South China Sea talks with China. This is a very bad idea.
On May 9, 2016, the Philippines will hold its presidential election. The leading candidate, 71-year-old Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, gives international observers many reasons to be worried about what kind of president he would be if the polls hold through election day. Duterte famously joked about a woman who was a victim of a gang rape in his home city, saying he thought she was so attractive he only wished he’d raped her first. Duterte’s main legacy as Davao mayor was his open support for vigilante death squads that have killed over 1,000 people. The death squads’ stated purpose is to eliminate criminals but they have reportedly killed 132 children in Davao. Duterte argues the death squads have reduced petty crime but he ignores the fact that their actions caused the murder rate to soar.
But Duterte’s views on women and his promise to bring his violent brand of criminal justice to the whole country are not the only reasons to worry about the possibility of Duterte as president of the Philippines. His foreign policy gives nearly as much cause for concern. Duterte has demonstrated during his career that he is tragically naïve about China’s intentions in the western Pacific.
Duterte’s position on China’s maritime activity is to hold bilateral talks with China on the subject if the current strategy of litigating the Philippines’ dispute with China and seeking a multilateral resolution does not produce results within two years. This approach is both naïve and self-defeating.
Traditionally, China’s neighbors have tried to deal diplomatically with China in multilateral forums. Because China has been for most of its history so much larger and so much more powerful than any of its neighbors, China’s neighbors have had a hard time protecting their interests negotiating with China one-on-one. China has typically pressed for bilateral engagement while its neighbors have tried to insist on multilateral forums. In the South China Sea, for example, Beijing has predictably requested bilateral negotiations with the various claimants.
Duterte’s proposal of bilateral talks plays right into China’s hands. Once the Chinese have the Philippines in a bilateral negotiation, Beijing will have gained a huge advantage because Manila lacks the hard or soft power to effectively press its claims alone. The Philippines needs to work in concert with other claimants, like Vietnam and Malaysia, to counter China’s activities. The current Philippine strategy of litigating its claims at The Hague has the support of Vietnam and Malaysia, but they will only back the Philippines so long as Manila’s strategy is aimed at pushing back against China. The moment Duterte enters bilateral talks with China, the Philippines will be undercutting Vietnam and Malaysia and the unified diplomatic front will crumble. Duterte seems oblivious to this.
Additionally, Duterte’s prescription of giving the current strategy of lawfare two years to produce results all but ensures that the strategy will fail. Under the current Philippine approach, Manila’s challenge to Chinese occupation of maritime features has the support of all the other claimants to the islands of the South China Sea. Under Duterte’s approach, Beijing would know that it only had to wait two years before the Philippines’ would break up this unified front and put itself right where China wants it: In a bilateral negotiation where China has the advantage.
Duterte’s recent promise that he would “shut up” about Philippine claims in the South China Sea if the Chinese would pay to build a train around Mindanao and another between Manila and Bicol show that Duterte’s grasp of the military situation may be just as weak as his grasp of diplomacy. Whatever the value of expanded investment in railways might be to the Philippines, they do not outweigh the cost of ceding control of the Spratly Islands to China. If China were to consolidate its holdings in the Spratlys it would be able to easily project power against the Philippines and could secure military dominance in the South China Sea against all challengers. China would be able to create a new reality on the ground that would supersede anything in international law.
Duterte’s proposal shows a lack of sophistication in how to be effective in diplomacy, and in diplomacy with China in particular. His approach would essentially play right into China’s hands and ensure the Philippines was negotiating from a position of maximum weakness while ignoring the military risks of ceding contested maritime features to China.
John Ford is a captain in the United States Army’s JAG Corps. The views expressed are his own and are not the official view of the U.S. Army. You can follow him on twitter @johndouglasford