Philippine presidential hopeful Mayor Rodrigo Duterte favors peace above all else in seeking a resolution to the South China Sea dispute. He has expressed his willingness to partner up with China in mutually beneficial joint ventures that do not compromise Philippine sovereignty or freedom of navigation in the global commons.
As neighboring countries reinforce their maritime vigilance with a buildup of arms, Duterte has maintained a voice of calm and reason in trying to preserve peace and goodwill with China. He has repeatedly pointed out that Philippine economic growth could be derailed by military conflict involving the West Philippine Sea, which is the smaller area of the South China Sea, off the country’s western seaboard.
In light of the upcoming Philippine elections, Duterte released a foreign policy statement to the press. It included the protocol he would follow as a president for peace in dealing with the South China Sea situation. Firstly, he would continue the Philippines’ appeal for arbitration with the United Nations. Secondly, he would willingly engage China in bilateral negotiations. Thirdly, if everything else fails to resolve the issue, he would take more assertive action to defend the sovereignty of the Philippines.
While Duterte aspires to be a peace advocate for the region, nearby incidents have been aggravating an already tense situation. Vietnam and Indonesia have figured in maritime incidents with China.
According to Straits Times, Vietnam seized a Chinese ship with three people on board in the Gulf of Tonkin near the South China Sea on Thursday, March 31, 2016. This flashpoint situation that threatens Duterte’s envisioned regional peace involved Chinese nationals fishing in Vietnamese waters.
The Vietnam coastguard seized the vessel, according to the Thanh Nien News, carrying more than 100,000 liters of diesel oil to refuel illegal Chinese fishing boats like those spotted in the Philippines, to Duterte’s consternation. After the interception, the coastguard towed the Chinese vessel to Vietnam’s Hai Phong harbour where Vietnamese peace authorities and their captives await word from Beijing.
On Saturday, March 19, an Indonesian task force vessel captured a Chinese fishing boat within Indonesia’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone, according to the New York Times. Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir claimed that the seizure occurred off the Natuna Islands northwest of Borneo, a similar incident to that in Duterte’s Philippines.
Indonesian personnel boarded the Kway Fey, arresting its captain and eight-member crew. As the Indonesian maritime interceptor began towing the fishing boat back to a Natuna base, a Chinese coast guard vessel appeared near or inside Indonesia’s territorial waters and rammed the fishing boat. The unexpected maneuver forced the Indonesians to release the boat, igniting a diplomatic firestorm threatening regional peace.
According to The Guardian, the G7 foreign ministers group that met on April 10 and 11 in Hiroshima, Japan, issued a joint statement on the escalation of tensions Duterte has mentioned in speeches. The summit of seven countries — Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Canada, excluding China – expressed concern about peace disruption in the East and South China Seas.
“We express our strong opposition to any intimidating, coercive or provocative unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions.”
Meanwhile, the Philippines and the United States have started 12 days of joint military maneuvers, involving 8,000 troops from both sides in the Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) exercises across the archipelago. At least one drill is slated for the waters off Palawan province, where Duterte made his campaign sortie comments on China.
About 80 soldiers from the Australian Defence Force are also joining the exercises in the name of regional peace. Troops from Japan, as well as Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, India, South Korea, and Timor Leste, are also taking part as observers.
Amid all these warlike developments prior to the May 9 elections, Duterte has focused his rhetoric on peace with China and economic growth.
[Photo by Gabriel Mistral/Getty Images]