Duterte’s pivot to China ‘may not have entirely paid off’ – expert

Analyst Georgi Engelbrecht says Chinese incursions into the Western Philippine Sea have continued despite friendlier relations between the Philippines and China under the Duterte administration

MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte’s pivot to China “may not have fully paid off”, according to one analyst.

International Crisis Group analyst Georgi Engelbrecht said Duterte’s alliance with China has not resolved rising tensions in the Western Philippine Sea.

During a Southeast Asia Speaks interview with Rappler on Thursday, January 13, Englbrecht was asked to explain his report that Duterte’s pivot to China “may not have entirely paid off.”

“So the first is what it really looks like with the situation in the South China Sea and the maritime tensions. Have they come down? Has there been any progress? And I think that’s where It’s starting to get complicated because at the start we have relatively calm seas but it didn’t stay that long,” said Englbrecht.

“And finally, it developed into recent events: Whitsun and Second Thomas Shoal,” added the expert.

Engelbrecht noted that such incidents are proof that the friendly relations maintained by the Philippines under Duterte did not guarantee an easing of tensions in the Western Philippine Sea.

“So despite these high-level contacts, despite good diplomatic relations, we couldn’t really get rid of the tension. Of course, it could have been worse, but the result there was also rather mixed in this sense because friendly relations were not fully assured,” the expert said.

In 2021 alone, there have been Chinese incursions into the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. In March, hundreds of Chinese ships invaded Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef in the Western Philippine Sea and remained there for months despite repeated protests from the Duterte government. A few months after this incident, in August 2021, the Philippine military said that China had used flares to ward off Philippine military assets patrolling the Western Philippine Sea.

In early November 2021, when Chinese Coast Guard vessels blocked and used water cannons on Philippine boats en route to Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal.

For nearly six years, the Philippine president has delivered confusing messages about the country’s relationship with China, which claims certain Philippine maritime characteristics despite the 2016 Hague ruling.

When he was running for president, Duterte promised that if elected he would assert the rights of the country against China and even jet ski the Spratleys to prove a point. Five years later, in May 2021, the president denied ever swearing to pressure China over the Western Philippine Sea.

On several occasions, the Philippine president had declared that he “needed China” and thanked the country “for loving the Philippines”. Duterte also never implemented the 2016 Hague ruling, repeatedly saying he did not want to provoke a military response for the regional giant, even though experts reminded him that would not be the case.


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