Deep dive with Rodrigo Duterte: SCS dispute, PH foreign policy and EDCA

 

By Prof. Anna Malindog-Uy

 

ON the evening of Oct. 23, 2023, I found myself in the spotlight in the thrilling TV show “Gikan Sa Masa Para Sa Masa” (From the Masses for the Masses), graced by the presence of former president Rodrigo Roa Duterte. Our spirited discussion allowed me to delve into his perspective on the Philippines’ most urgent domestic and international challenges. Three of the critical topics we touched on are crucial to our nation’s future. Notably his views on the recent altercation between the Philippine and Chinese coast guards in the Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal). Following are highlights from that profound conversation.

Contested waters of Ayungin Shoal

On the recent incident or skirmish in the Ayunging Shoal between the Philippine and the Chinese coast guards, former president Duterte said: “Well, let me just be very frank. This is a contested area. This has been going on since time immemorial. Not just now during the time of Marcos [Jr.] and my time. There have been near-collisions or a mishap somewhere even before. This is because we have a controversy and a conflict.”

“It cannot be solved by just publishing every incident every day or shouting to the world that there is something wrong every time that there is a near-collision or a collision or something that is a source of trouble.”

He emphasized the need for a code of conduct (COC) to manage the dispute in the South China Sea.

“The COC will set the parameters of where we can travel and sail with sufficient guidelines, parameters, and warnings if we intrude or violate the rules that we abide by. If we don’t have it, well, we can see what is happening now. One day, it will just ‘explode.’ I don’t know what will happen. I would not speculate.”

He also said: “Well, we cannot go to war against China. We will be defeated immensely and tremendously. As a matter of fact, there will be a lot of dead Filipino people if things go out of hand. The best way is to talk. Looking at this problem, I hope that the Filipino mind should consider separating itself in dealing with China not to act so brazenly just because we are backed by the US… It would be better to talk, as Filipinos, to China and find out how far we can solve this problem. I’m sure China would be willing to give way. Otherwise, there would be a stalemate, and it would not be good.”

PH foreign policy and EDCA

I sought Mr. Duterte’s insights on a hot-button topic: the Philippines’ foreign policy direction under the helm of President Marcos Jr. In a rapidly changing global landscape, where the age-old dominance of a unipolar world led by the US gives way to a more diverse, multi-polar setup, where does he see the nation’s stance? How does he perceive our nation’s diplomatic dance?

Mr. Duterte said: “Our approach now is OK up to this point in time. We deal with the nations at all times, and individually, we have a personal line. Not like before, wherein we go by the stand of America. If America says this is our stand, all allies will follow — including the Philippines. I have always criticized that kind of behavior. It is not good because, after all, they isolated China. While we are just one hour and 30 minutes away from the WPS. If you go by missiles and bombs, it will take just about five to 10 minutes. We must realize that China is a power. America is also a power. Why? Because they have nuclear weapons.”

I asked Mr. Duterte about the contentious Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and the strategic implications of increasing the number of its bases/sites in the Philippines. With nine EDCA installations already dotting our nation, is expanding this footprint a wise move for our sovereignty? Is the further expansion of EDCA bases/sites in the best interest of the Philippines? Beyond this, does he perceive EDCA as a deterrent for our nation?

Mr. Duterte: “So, if you say you will increase the (EDCA) bases as a deterrence, you must be joking. America is making the Philippines a garrison. We are like a detachment ahead of Guam, Hawaii and the mainland (USA). They will fight here first in the Philippines. The Filipinos will help, including Cafgu and the police. In fairness, they also have soldiers who are willing to die for America. But we will all suffer because we would be the first line of defense. Before they can move on to Guam, Hawaii and America, they will try to stop it here. This is the tripwire. They are training the Filipinos, so we can go there first. The Filipinos will be the first defenders. I do not believe in that deterrence. How can missiles be a deterrence? How can the Philippines deter China through these EDCA sites?… Let’s not fool each other. Do not be naive. It can bring you down.”

Conclusion

Reflecting on the former president’s answers to my questions, I realized that our perspectives on the nation’s pressing issues align seamlessly. I concur with his sentiment that EDCA is not a deterrent but rather acts as a potential magnet for retaliatory military responses, especially if US-backed confrontations erupt in the Indo-Pacific. On the delicate matter of the SCS dispute, our shared belief resonates — the path forward lies in direct diplomacy between the Philippines and China, sans US interference. Instituting a code of conduct in the SCS is paramount to prevent unnecessary conflicts.

On the other hand, the Philippines’ recurring strategy of “megaphone diplomacy” every time tensions rise around Ayungin Shoal or other contentious areas in the SCS is out of touch and detached from the ground realities, lacks the pragmatism needed and misses the mark on strategic problem-solving to truly address the issue. Furthermore, the notion of the Philippines going head-to-head with China over shoals and islets in the SCS is frankly unthinkable and reckless.

The truth of the matter is navigating these multifaceted challenges demands an approach rooted in open-mindedness, rationality, pragmatism, and adept/steadfast diplomacy, crucial to ensure that the already heightened tensions in the contested waters do not further escalate. We can only hope to temper the simmering tensions in these contested waters with such a balanced perspective.

With the looming threats of escalating tensions/military conflicts in Ukraine and the Israel-Palestinian crises, we cannot risk adding another flashpoint in our region. The world simply cannot withstand another spark that could ignite a full-blown military conflict on our side of the world. Now, more than ever, regional unity and diplomatic foresight are paramount. Cohesion and diplomacy must lead the way in these volatile and interesting times.

For the Asean and broader Asia-Pacific to truly enjoy lasting peace and stability, the responsibility falls on the shoulders of Filipinos and their Asian counterparts. It’s crucial to navigate the treacherous waters of geopolitics, being mindful of its high stakes. The bitter truth remains in military conflicts/wars: There are no victors, only casualties.

 

Prof. Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy

is a PhD economics candidate at the Institute of South-South Cooperation and Development in China’s Peking University. She is analyst, director and vice president for external affairs of the Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies Institute (ACPSSI), a Manila-based think tank.

 

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