Duterte and the South China Sea
By Henry Hing Lee Chan

Duterte and the South China Sea

May. 24, 2016  |     |  0 comments

The 2016 presidential election in the Philippines is in many ways proving to be a watershed event. Rodrigo Duterte, a local mayor with scant national exposure and celebrity status won the election with a convincing victory. Duterte’s Trump-like rhetoric has caused considerable anxiety among the country’s ASEAN neighbors with regards to the South China Sea impasse: how the country will handle the fallout from the arbitration tribunal rulings on the Philippine case against China and what new direction the country will take when it assumes the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2017.1

The Philippine president is elected in a single-round multiple-candidate election under the 1986 Constitution. Whoever wins the single round with the highest number of votes is the winner of the election. With a highly polarized regional voting pattern that favors the native candidate, it has been almost impossible for a candidate to come up with majority vote in a field of multiple candidates since presidential elections was first held in 1992 under the 1986 Constitution. In fact, any candidate who receives more than 1/3 of the votes is considered to have won the mandate of the people. In this election, Duterte won more than 38.5 percent of the vote amid a high voter turnover of more than 80 percent. The rival candidates in the presidential election all conceded defeat the following day after the election, a record in Philippine history.

Many analysts credited the election of Duterte to surging worries about crime and narcotics, as well as the uneven distribution of the fruits of economic development under outgoing President Benigno Aquino’s term in office. Official figures that put the number of drug users at about 1 percent of the population are widely believed to be understatements and Duterte’s success in turning his bailiwick city of Davao from the so-called murder capital of the Philippines to one of the country’s safest cities has captured the imagination of the Filipinos.2 His self-proclaimed extra-judicial killings are seen as effective crime stopping actions by a determined leader rather than human rights violations. While President Aquino had presided over an annual average economic growth rate of 6.3 percent over the past five years, more than 20 percent of Filipinos continue to live in poverty and the occasional breakdown of mass rail transport system in Manila. This, as well as the failure to rehabilitate Tacloban after Typhoon Haiyan, contributed to the perception of the ineptness of Aquino’s administration.

Unlike the presidential election of 1998 in which then vice president and former showbiz hero Joseph Estrada was elected president, Duterte was never a national figure nor a dynamic and affable speaker who captivated audiences. When he decided to run for president last year, he was already 70 years old, long passed the age that voters usually associate with charisma. It was his message of stamping out crime and corruption that propelled his ascendancy. He is one of the most enduring local government executives and understood the voters’ mind much better than outside observers thought he would. He is keenly aware of the expectations of voters and it is almost certain that he will try to implement policies along these twin directions.

Philippine politics has been volatile since the 1986 EDSA revolution. Of the five Philippine presidents since 1986 — Corazon Aquino (1986-1992), Fidel Ramos (1992-1998), Joseph Estrada (1998-2001), Gloria Arroyo (2001-2010), Benigno Aquino III (2010-2016) — it has only been President Benigno Aquino III who successfully remained popular going into the last year of his term; all the other presidents lost significant public support after their first two to three years in office and saw their power crippled by a less than cooperative legislature. Even if a president serves a single six-year term without re-election, the three-year local government and Congressional election cycle makes a president’s popularity important at all times during his incumbency. This is not to mention the EDSA II revolution that toppled President Estrada in January 2001 in the middle of his term.

Duterte started his public service career in 1977 as the city prosecutor of Davao City. Davao is the largest city in the Southern Philippines and is the third largest nationwide, after Metro Manila and Metro Cebu. He was first elected mayor of Davao City in 1988 and intermittently served seven terms as city mayor between 1988 and 2016. In between, the constitutional three-consecutive-term limit on local mayors had interrupted his mayor-ship in 1998 and 2010. He was elected as a single term three-year congressman in 1998 after serving three terms as mayor from 1988-1998, then came back as mayor from 2001-2010 and later served as vice-mayor of the city from 2010-2013 to his daughter, then resumed as mayor again from 2013-2016. In a way, his political resume reflects the deeply entrenched family-based local politics of the Philippines. There are concerns that his long association with local government might distract him from important national issues such as economics and foreign affairs.

China’s position on the South China Sea dispute is getting clearer and their advocacy for the bilateral approach resembles what Duterte has stated openly on many occasions.

Guessing the moves of Duterte on the South China Sea dispute is not easy. During the election, he was “all over the diplomatic map” on this issue.3 At one point, he had said that he would go to the disputed island in a jet ski and plant the Philippine flag on the island. While on many other occasions, he echoed the Chinese proposal of bilateral talks as well as “set aside dispute and joint development.” However, there are reasonable bases to believe his South China Sea policy will at least open the door for bilateral talks:

(1) Duterte has expressed concern about the Philippines bringing the legal case against China in the first place. He is a professional lawyer and his claim that “I have a similar position as China’s. I don’t believe in solving the conflict through an international tribunal” should not be taken as mere election rhetoric. A pragmatic approach in a territorial dispute is often the most effective way to resolve the impasse. One should note his long mayoralty in Davao City is marked by pragmatism in many ways.

(2) He kept the most open attitude on the South China Sea issue among the five major presidential candidates and his convincing victory shows that he enjoys a wide latitude of public support going into bilateral talks. Most international negotiations on border issues were bogged down with domestic nationalist backlashes rather than counter-party intransigence.

(3) His senior advisor, former President Fidel Ramos is the most experienced post-1986 Philippine president on international affairs.4 His approach on international affairs is closer to the realist school of thought and is much less legalistic and ideological. The realist school often favors the pragmatic bilateral approach to resolve disputes.

(4) China’s position on the South China Sea dispute is getting clearer and their advocacy for the bilateral approach resembles what Duterte has stated openly on many occasions.5 The meeting of minds at the moment should facilitate the start of talks.

Of course, one should not overlook the regional and global dimension of the current South China Sea impasse. The attitude of the US plays a critical role in the possible outcome of any Philippine-China rapprochement. Many historians consider the Philippines as a Pacific rather than an Asian country, and its long history of first Spanish and then American colonization has make the country’s worldview more Western as compared to its ASEAN partners. The coming US election with either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as the new US president will definitely herald in a new approach on the South China Sea. The current impasse is too distracting to overall US foreign policy and runs the risk of a dangerous spiral towards confrontation. Some US scholars have advocated an open mind toward the possibility of the Philippines doing a deal with China.6 Of course, the US mainstream remains sceptical of such a move today.7

The next few months will see a lull in the South China Sea issue as all concerned parties will digest the meaning and impact of the coming resolution of the case that the Philippines has brought against China in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Additionally, the Duterte presidency will be busy forming a new administration. The Philippine executive department runs along the US model and a new president must fill up thousands of presidential appointments. A coherent team on foreign policy would probably take some time to form and meaningful policy towards the South China Sea requires some Congressional input as well.8 9 Of course, although US foreign policy is generally non-partisan, US policy on the South China Sea will probably see a new direction under a new administration.

Let us hope all parties in the South China Sea dispute will come up with creative solutions to avoid the current trap of security mistrust, restore the harmony in the region, and focus their attention on the urgent issue of poverty alleviation.


1. Liow, J. (2016, May 13). Will Rodrigo Duterte walk the talk? Brookings Institute. Retrieved from http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/order-from-chaos/posts/2016/05/13-rodrigo-duterte-philippines-liow

2. Chilkoti, A. (2016, May 10). Rodrigo Duterte, the “punisher” mayor set to lead the Philippines. The Financial Times. Retrieved from http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/745191fa-1673-11e6-b8d5-4c1fcdbe169f.html?ftcamp=engage/email/emailthis_link/ft_articles_share/share_link_article_email/editorial#axzz


3. Valencia, M. (2016, May 13). How will the new Philippine president tackle the South China Sea issue? South China Morning Post. Retrieved from http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1944076/how-will-new-philippine-president-tackle-south-china-sea

4. Romualdez, B. (2016, May 10). Infighting inside Duterte camp. The Philippine Star. Retrieved from http://www.philstar.com/business/2016/05/10/1581551/infighting-inside-duterte-camp

5. Spotlight: Senior Chinese diplomat says confrontation in South China Sea benefits none. (2016, May 12). Xinhuanet. Retrieved from http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-05/12/c_135354321.htm

6. O'Hanlon, M. E. (2016, May 12). Rodrigo Duterte, China, and the United States. Brookings Institute. Retrieved from http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/order-from-chaos/posts/2016/05/12-duterte-china-united-states-ohanlon?utm_campaign=Brookings Brief&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=29584966&_hsenc=p2AN



7. Rauhala, E. (2016, May 10). Rise of Philippines’ Duterte stirs uncertainty in the South China Sea. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/rise-of-philippines-duterte-stirs-up-uncertainty-in-the-south-china-sea/2016/05/10/d75102e2-1621-11e6-971a-dadf9ab18869_story.html

8. Cruz, E. (2016, May 15). Scarborough red line. The Philippine Star. Retrieved from http://www.philstar.com/opinion/2016/05/15/1583297/scarborough-red-line

9. Viray, P. L. (2016, May 16). Analyst: Duterte will have difficult balancing act with China, US. The Philippine Star. Retrieved from http://www.philstar.com/headlines/2016/05/16/1583773/analyst-duterte-will-have-difficult-balancing-act-china-us

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *