Controversial Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has been criticized for his violent campaign against crime, but it is the former mayor’s foreign policy overhaul that is shifting tides in the South China Sea.

On Thursday, Duterte made explicit a threat he has been brandishing for months: that he would break a historical alliance with the United States and align his country with China and Russia. 

Ties with the United States became strained after Duterte unleashed a bloodbath in the Philippines by encouraging police to kill drug dealers. The campaign drew criticism from the Western world—which Duterte met with defiance and a pledge to turn towards Russia and China.

During his first 100 days in office, Duterte halted joint U.S.–Philippines patrols, demanded that U.S. Special Forces leave the region, and threatened to end a decades-old alliance with the United States.

He has also dared the United States and the European Union to stop providing aid and said he would go to Russia and China for arms and development funds. Duterte surprised observers Wednesday by pleading for aid in a rash of interviews with Chinese state-owned media during his trip.   

Speaking in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Thursday, Duterte made his position official.

“I announce my separation from the United States,” Duterte told an audience of Chinese and Philippine business people that included Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli.

“I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to [President Vladimir] Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world—China, Philippines, and Russia. It’s the only way,” Duterte said, according to Reuters.

The announcement was a culmination of a trip to China that saw the hosts giving a warm welcome, while Duterte made a concerted plea for support. China had previously voiced support for Duterte’s war on drugs.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte in Beijing during a four-day visit to China, Oct. 20, 2016. (Wu Hong-Pool/Getty Images)

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte in Beijing during a four-day visit to China, Oct. 20, 2016. (Wu Hong-Pool/Getty Images)

Since Duterte’s election in May, over 3,000 alleged drug dealers have been killed with over 1,500 of them dying in guns battles with police, according to Time. Duterte has encouraged a shoot-to-kill policy and said he would be happy if police killed as many as three million drug addicts, likening his campaign to the Holocaust.

The extrajudicial killings have been condemned by international rights groups and Western countries, including the United States. Duterte, dubbed “the Punisher,” responded by using profane language when referring to U.S. President Barack Obama and saying Obama could “go to hell.”

Closer Ties with Russia, China

The United States has been a key supplier of aid and arms to Philippines for decades but Duterte has said he can get weapons elsewhere.

“I sent the generals to Russia and Russia said ‘do not worry, we have everything you need, we’ll give it to you,’” he said on October 5.

“And as for China, they said ‘just come over and sign and everything will be delivered.’”

While the bluster and cowboy swagger may have populist appeal domestically, analysts say Duterte is in way in over his head in dealing with China.

“It’s very clear that the Chinese are going to exploit this to the hilt,” said Dr. Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). “They will play him like a violin.”

“They will get all they can from him and that could completely undermine Western strategic posture and policy in regards to the South China Sea,” he said.

South China Sea

The stakes are high in the South China Sea. In a landmark decision in July, an international tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines and against Beijing in a territorial dispute over the West Philippines Sea region of the South China Sea. Chinese officials have refused to acknowledge the decision and continue to prevent Filipino fishermen from accessing Scarborough Shoal, an area in Philippine territory.

Duterte told media he would not be raising the tribunal ruling during his current trip and has been deferential while in China, saying he would not even raise fisherman access unless Chinese leader raised it first.

“I have to be courteous, I have to wait for your president to mention it in passing for me to respond,” he told reporters there on Wednesday.

(screenshot/Google maps)

(screenshot/Google maps)

On Thursday, he said the two countries would work together to resolve the issues.

Depending on how that is done, Duterte could run afoul of his country’s highest court. On the eve of his trip, a Filipino Supreme Court judge warned Duterte that he could be impeached if he ceded any Filipino territory in his meetings with Chinese authorities.

“He is correct. I would be impeached,” Duterte told reporters at the Davao international airport on Oct. 16.

But Duterte told local Filipino officials on Oct. 10 that he can do little to defend Philippine territory against China.

“Let’s not dwell on Scarborough Shoal because we don’t have the capabilities,” he said. “Even if we express anger, it will just amount to nothing. We can’t back it up.”

Military Might

Historically, the United States and the Philippines have strong economic and military ties. According to InsideGov, the U.S. gave just shy of $200 million in 2012 with the largest amount, $31 million, going to military assistance.

The Philippines is also party to a Mutual Defense Treaty through which its armed forces get equipment and intelligence from the United States.

Since Duterte seems to have passed the point of no return in his pivot away from the United States and towards Russia and China—as said in September he would do—this history will be abruptly irrelevant.

“If that relationship goes then the military is cut adrift. All that goes out the window,” Davis said.

Adapting to Chinese or Russian weaponry will be unappealing for the Philippine military and Duterte plays a dangerous game if he rattles them too much. The Philippines has a long history of military coups, though the previous government of former president Corazon Aquino created relative stability.

Strategic Nightmare

Davis believes Duterte’s kowtow to China is like “a bad poker player with a bad hand…He is going to lose.”

While there may be arms deals, it is unlikely China will be interested in contributing any more than it has to help to with any insurgent movements in the south, Davis said.

“I don’t think the Chinese want to bear any costs to claim the prize, they just want to claim the prize,” he said.

With the Chinese so focused on gaining strategic control in the South China Sea and driving a wedge between the United States and its allies, Duterte is playing right into their hands, he said.

“They are taking him for everything he’s got.”

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Chinese dredgers work on the construction of artificial islands on and around Michief Reef in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea on May 2. The U.S. Navy recently sent a warship to patrol near the Chinese regime’s man-made islands. (U.S. Navy)Chinese dredgers work on the construction of artificial islands on and around Michief Reef in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea on May 2. The U.S. Navy recently sent a warship to patrol near the Chinese regime’s man-made islands. (U.S. Navy)

The foundation of the Chinese regime’s legal case and strategy for exploiting the South China Sea rested on a supposed historical ownership—and on July 12, an arbitration court in The Hague declared that this foundation is false.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) quickly shot back. A statement from its Foreign Ministry says it views the Tribunal’s decision as “null and void and has no binding force,” and says it “neither accepts nor recognizes it.”

In spite of the bluster issuing from Beijing, the CCP has lost its main line for propaganda and its best chance to establish a moral ground for its position on the South China Sea.

Yet, according to Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, “it’s important to recognize this issue isn’t over.”

A Battle of Deception

One of the main strategies the CCP has employed in the South China Sea is what it calls the “Three Warfares;” which are legal warfare, psychological warfare, and media warfare.

The strategy works by manufacturing “legal” arguments, creating psychological pressure on adversaries, and manipulating news coverage. The Office of Net Assessment, a Pentagon think tank, described the strategy in a May 2013 report as a “war-fighting process that constitutes war by other means,” and that uses deception as a way to “alter the strategic environment in a way that renders kinetic engagement irrational.”

Cheng said the CCP’s use of legal warfare “was not really a matter of what other legal authorities say.” He noted that already there are Chinese law professors and others trying to discredit the Tribunal, and saying it has been tainted or has no authority.

At its heart, the CCP’s Three Warfares is a strategy for disinformation—a form of propaganda that functions by manufacturing a lie with a grain of truth, then using this lie as a foundation to make seemingly legitimate arguments. A key goal of disinformation is to get coverage in otherwise credible news outlets and think tanks, which can then be used to make additional arguments.

In the South China Sea, this strategy has manifested in the CCP’s claims that it has historical ownership over nearly the entire region; which gives it the right to manufacture islands, declare defensive perimeters around its artificial islands, and to chase ships from other nations out of the region.

The Road Ahead

The Tribunal’s website went offline shortly after the announcement, but an archive of its press release is still available.

According to the press release, the CCP boycotted the Tribunal, but even in China’s absence, the Tribunal took steps to “test the accuracy of the Philippines’ claims,” it states. This included questioning the Philippines, appointing independent experts to “report to the Tribunal on technical matters,” and “obtaining historical evidence concerning features in the South China Sea and providing it to the Parties for comment.”

In the end, the Tribunal overwhelmingly found the CCP’s claims to be false. It said in the press release it “found that China’s claim to historic rights to resources was incompatible with the detailed allocation of rights and maritime zones” in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and that any historic rights the CCP had to resources in the South China Sea were “extinguished by the entry into force of the Convention to the extent they were incompatible with the Convention’s system of maritime zones.”

The claims of various nations in the South China Sea. (VOA)

The claims of various nations in the South China Sea. (VOA)

Regardless of the decision, however, the CCP has repeatedly stated it would “neither accept nor participate in the arbitration unilaterally initiated by the Philippines,” according to the press release.

According to Cheng, the Chinese regime did not attend the hearings for the simple reason that “they knew their case was not going to stand up to current tenets of international law.”
But according to Cheng, “the Chinese were not going to make any concessions in the South China Sea before this, and they’re not going to now.”

He added that “there weren’t many countries that believed the Chinese position to begin with.”

Moving forward, it’s likely the CCP will make a new propaganda push to discredit the Tribunal, and it may try to manufacture a new disinformation line to base its claims on. It’s also likely the CCP will make a stronger push either with military strength or by starting more civilian ventures in the South China Sea.

The CCP has four masks it can wear in the South China Sea conflict: one for military intimidation, one for peaceful civilian ventures, one for financial gain, and another for strategic deception.

The ruling has put a dent in the CCP’s mask for strategic deception, but its other fronts remain largely unscathed.

“I think the Chinese are going to play the tourist card,” Cheng said, noting that already it has done tourist flights to the South China Sea. He said the CCP will also likely make new pushes with military power and may look for an economic component as well in order to justify its unlawful ventures in the region.

He noted that the CCP may also try a diplomatic approach, and build its own alliance, which could include Laos, Cambodia, and Brunei. He said it may offer these countries an agreement “to say, work with us you get something, oppose us you’ll get nothing.”

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A China Coast Guard ship (top) and a Philippine supply boat engage in a stand off as the Philippine boat attempts to reach the Second Thomas Shoal, a remote South China Sea a reef claimed by both countries, on March 29, 2014. (Jay DirectoJ/AFP/Getty Images)A China Coast Guard ship (top) and a Philippine supply boat engage in a stand off as the Philippine boat attempts to reach the Second Thomas Shoal, a remote South China Sea a reef claimed by both countries, on March 29, 2014. (Jay DirectoJ/AFP/Getty Images)

In October 2015, the Philippines filed a pending arbitration case against China through the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, arguing that the Chinese regime’s claims to the South China Sea violate international law.

As a decision on the South China Sea looms in international court, the Chinese regime has done all it can to avoid the case—from stating it will not participate, to making threats against the Philippines, to rallying African nations so as to claim a base of support.

Yet with the ruling now just around the corner, the Chinese regime is pulling one last card out of its sleeve.

As Mark Eadas writes on Foreign Policy Association, Chinese state media and the South China Morning Post (which has been brought more deeply under Party control), announced a new “legal challenge” and “fresh uncertainty” on the case, submitted by a legal organization called the Asia-Pacific Institute of International Law (APIIL) in Hong Kong.

The APIIL submitted a “friend of the court” brief that avoids the issue of whether the Chinese regime has legal rights throughout the South China Sea, and instead claims the court itself lacks jurisdiction for a ruling. Eadas notes the brief hasn’t yet been made public, so its full details aren’t clear.

The claim itself may be interesting for anyone watching the South China Sea dispute, given that it suggests the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) doesn’t seem to believe its claims of “historical sovereignty” will hold up.

But what’s really interesting about the new development isn’t the claims themselves, but instead what’s really behind the organizations making the claims.

As Eadas notes, the Chinese state media left out an important detail on the APIIL. As he puts it, the organization “hardly exists,” as it was only registered as a business two months ago in Hong Kong, and “no website or public contact information, no prior history of legal practice, and no names associated with it other than ‘chairman’ Daniel Fung.”

Before we go any further, Fung claims objectivity on the South China Sea dispute. He told the state-run Xinhua news outlet he only wants to “maintain the perfection of the international law system.” He just doesn’t want to see “the international law system being jeopardized or its reputation being damaged.”

But as Eadas notes, Fung’s allegiances already lie elsewhere. He has a long track record of supporting the CCP’s stances going back to at least 1997; and Chinese state media also missed the crucial detail that Fung is a delegate of the CCP’s Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing. In 2010 he was found guilty in Hong Kong for professional misconduct.

Paramilitary guards walk in Tiananmen Square outside the Great Hall of the People during a press conference of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) on March 2, 2013. The CPPCC is under the United Front Department, which is one of the Chinese regime's key spy departments. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

Paramilitary guards walk in Tiananmen Square outside the Great Hall of the People during a press conference of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) on March 2, 2013. The CPPCC is under the United Front Department, which is one of the Chinese regime’s key spy departments. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

Fung’s position with the CPPCC also opens its own can of worms. According to an October 2011 report from the Europe China Research and Advice Network, the CPPCC’s members “are not elected but hand-picked by the Chinese Communist Party.”

The report also notes that the CPPCC is directly operated by the CCP’s United Front Department, which is one of the Chinese regime’s main spy organizations and focuses specifically on infiltrating power structures abroad to expand the CCP’s control of foreign politics, business, and public thought.

Epoch Times has deeply exposed the United Front Department over the years, along with its sister spy department, the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office.

And the strings that pull Fung don’t end there. Eadas writes that Fung is also a founding governor of the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF), which poses as a non-political and non-governmental organization. Yet, Eadas cites former deputy assistant to the vice-president of the United States for national security affairs Aaron Friedberg stating that it has ties to the CCP and to the Chinese military.

As opposed to its claims to be “non-political” and “non-governmental,” Friedberg states the CUSEF “is supported and advised by government-linked entities including the Shanghai Institute for International Studies and the [People’s Liberation Army] Academy of Military Science.” Friedberg also notes the CUSEF is “is funded by Hong Kong tycoons and [Chinese] state-owned enterprises .”

Eadas sums up the CCP’s new “legal challenge” noting it is “evidently nothing but a cheap trick to delay the court ruling with a fake ‘legal organization’ thrown together by a pro-Beijing shyster lawyer solely for that purpose.”

And the case also shows a level of fear and doubt among the Chinese regime’s leaders, facing a pending case that will officially expose the falsehood of their claims to the South China Sea and give international backing to nations that oppose them.

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MANILA, Philippines—With a towering warship behind him, President Barack Obama announced Tuesday that the U.S. will hand over two ships to the Philippine Navy to boost its maritime security capabilities, in a bid to show the U.S. and its allies won’t be cowed by China in disputed waters far off its coast.

Obama said the pair of ships — one U.S. Coast Guard cutter, one research vessel — were part of a broader American plan to scale up assistance to naval forces in Southeast Asia, where coastal nations feel threatened by China’s aggressive moves to assert control over the South China Sea. Obama said the U.S. had an “ironclad commitment” to the Philippines — a U.S. treaty ally — and a mutual commitment to free and safe navigation at sea.
“More capable navies, in partnership with the United States, are critical to the security of this region,” Obama said as he opened a six-day tour of the Philippines and Malaysia. He said the ships would help the Philippines navigate and patrol its territorial waters.
Obama never mentioned China by name as he stood in front of the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, a onetime U.S.-owned frigate, but the intended recipient of his message was clear. As regional tensions with China have simmered in recent years, the U.S. has sought out symbolic ways to counter Beijing’s claims in the region without putting itself in direct confrontation with the powerhouse nation.
Earlier this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter boarded a U.S. aircraft carrier plodding through the South China Sea, a week after a U.S. Navy destroyer patrolled within seven miles of a reef where China is building an artificial island and has asserted a 12-mile territorial boundary. The U.S. has refused to comply with China’s self-proclaimed air defense zone over the nearby East China Sea.
Obama’s announcement came at the start of his ninth trip to Asia, and this one, like the others, was designed to illustrate his efforts to strengthen alliances as part of his seven-year campaign to increase U.S. influence in Asia.
“You can count on the United States,” the president said.
During back-to-back summits in Manila and Kuala Lumpur, Obama planned a particular focus on touting the Trans-Pacific Partnership that the U.S. recently struck with 11 other nations — China not included. The sweeping free trade agreement is at the heart of Obama’s Asia policy, but its prospects for ratification by U.S. lawmakers remain uncertain.
Flanked by U.S. and Philippine troops, Obama said he would seek to provide another $140 million in maritime security aid to Southeast Asia next year, although it was unclear whether Congress would approve those funds.
The Philippine government’s eagerness for more muscular U.S. military assistance here illustrates how concerns about China appear to have superseded the nation’s resentment of its former colonial master and its reluctance to give U.S. troops free reign. Yet while Obama’s commitments fall short of what some countries in the region have sought, not all of that is Obama’s doing.
MORE:China Answers US Challenge in South China Sea With PropagandaNarrow Court Ruling May Offer Room for Diplomacy on South China Sea Claims
On his last trip here, in 2014, Obama signed a defense cooperation pact allowing the U.S. to base troops temporarily at some military camps, but a legal challenge has delayed implementation. Although the country’s pallid military has struggled to push back effectively against China, the Philippine constitution bars permanent U.S. bases.
Six Asian countries assert overlapping claims to parts of the South China Sea, and Beijing is locked in a parallel dispute with Japan and South Korea over the East China Sea. China views control of the waters, with their abundant underwater oil deposits and strategic shipping lanes, as key to its rise as a major economic and military power.
China’s ongoing march in contested waters has become a major tension point with the U.S., joining cyber-spying, human rights and trade disputes. Still, Obama has sought to foster a productive relationship with China, striking major deals with Beijing over climate change.
MORE:India Could Increase Presence in South China Sea With US ‘Encouragement’
Yet, Obama’s desired emphasis on U.S.-Asia ties is being overshadowed by global hand-wringing over the Islamic State group’s ghastly attacks in Paris. Meeting Tuesday with Australia’s new prime minister, Obama called for better outreach to Muslim communities to prevent radicalization.
“We will continue shoulder to shoulder with the U.S. and our allies in the fight against this type of extremist violence,” said Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.


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In this handout released by the U.S. Navy, the guided-missile destroyer USS Gravely (DDG 107) is seen August 2, 2012 in the Atlantic Ocean. (U.S. Navy via Getty Images)In this handout released by the U.S. Navy, the guided-missile destroyer USS Gravely (DDG 107) is seen August 2, 2012 in the Atlantic Ocean. (U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

BEIJING—A U.S. Navy warship sailed past one of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea on Tuesday, in a challenge to Chinese sovereignty claims that drew an angry protest from Beijing, which said the move damaged US-China relations and regional peace.

China’s Foreign Ministry said authorities monitored and warned the USS Lassen as it entered what China claims as a 12-mile (21-kilometer) territorial limit around Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands archipelago, a group of reefs, islets, and atolls where the Philippines has competing claims.

“The actions of the U.S. warship have threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests, jeopardized the safety of personnel and facilities on the reefs, and damaged regional peace and stability,” the ministry said on its website.

“The Chinese side expresses its strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition,” the statement said.

The sail-past fits a U.S. policy of pushing back against China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea. U.S. ally the Philippines welcomed the move as a way of helping maintain “a balance of power.”

Since 2013, China has accelerated the creation of new outposts by piling sand atop reefs and atolls then adding buildings, ports and airstrips big enough to handle bombers and fighter jets — activities seen as an attempt to change the territorial status quo by changing the geography.

Navy officials had said the sail-past was necessary to assert the U.S. position that China’s man-made islands cannot be considered sovereign territory with the right to surrounding territorial waters.

International law permits military vessels the right of “innocent passage” in transiting other country’s seas without notification. China’s Foreign Ministry, though, labeled the ship’s actions as illegal.

The U.S. says it doesn’t take a position on sovereignty over the South China Sea, but insists on freedom of navigation and overflight. About 30 percent of global trade passes through the South China Sea, which is also home to rich fishing grounds and a potential wealth of undersea mineral deposits.

China says it respects the right of navigation but has never specified the exact legal status of its maritime claims. China says virtually all of the South China Sea belongs to it, while Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam claim either parts or all of it.

Beijing’s response closely mirrored its actions in May when a navy dispatcher warned off a U.S. Navy P8-A Poseidon surveillance aircraft as it flew over Fiery Cross Reef, where China has conducted extensive reclamation work.

A Defense Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the Lassen’s movements, said the patrol was completed without incident. A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Bill Urban, declined to comment.

Speaking to foreign correspondents in Manila, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said he supported the U.S. naval maneuvers as an assertion of freedom of navigation and as a means to balance power in the region.

“I think expressing support for established norms of international behavior should not be a negative for a country,” he said. “I think everybody would welcome a balance of power anywhere in the world.”

Without identifying China by name, he said “one regional power” has been making “controversial pronouncements” that must not be left unchallenged.

The Obama administration has long said it will exercise a right to freedom of navigation in any international waters.

“Make no mistake, the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do around the world, and the South China Sea is not and will not be an exception,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said earlier this month.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry statement said China adhered to international law regarding freedom of navigation and flight, but “resolutely opposes the damaging of China’s sovereignty and security interests in the name of free navigation and flight.”

“China will firmly deal with provocations from other countries,” the statement said, adding that China would continue to monitor the air and sea and take further action when necessary.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday the U.S. would not be required to consult with other nations if it decided to conduct freedom of navigation operations in international waters.

“The whole point of freedom of navigation in international waters is that it’s international waters. You don’t need to consult with anybody,” Kirby said.

The South China Sea has become an increasingly sore point in relations with the United States, even as President Barack Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping have sought to deepen cooperation in other areas.

Despite those tensions, exchanges between the two militaries have continued to expand, with a U.S. Navy delegation paying visits last week to China’s sole aircraft carrier and a submarine warfare academy.


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