China and its Discontents

China Thinks Duterte Signals America’s Declining Role in Asia

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A previously unpublished article written about one month ago.

In recent weeks, president of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte’s red-carpet visit to China and various verbal contortions regarding the future of the U.S.-Philippines alliance have caused consternation in the United States and self-satisfied smugness on the part of China—reactions likely to be repeated after Duterte’s potential upcoming trip to Russia. Many have for their reckless willingness to “go it alone” in foreign affairs independent of alliance relationships, their populism, and their contempt for rule of law. When it comes to China, though, this comparison has its own twist: the Chinese ardently hope for a Trumpian U.S. foreign policy and imagine Duterte as the harbinger for a deteriorating American role in East Asia.

This past summer, China launched a massive propaganda campaign that harshly condemned the Philippines for its role in initiating the South China Sea arbitration. But in a dramatic about-face, now most Chinese commentators have praised Duterte for taking an Others, such as Xu Liping, a research fellow at the National Institute of International Strategy of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and Li Kaisheng, a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, claimed that the Philippines had been “taught a lesson” that it had got “nothing of real benefit” from the South China Sea arbitration and couldn’t actually count on American support in a crisis between China and the Philippines. Xinhua even published an interview with Duterte just prior to the trip in which he parroted Chinese talking points in favor of direct, bilateral negotiations between claimant states and for extra-regional states to stay out of the South China Sea dispute.

On an official level, such as “neighbors across the sea” and “blood brothers“ to describe the new bilateral relationship. China, once again, released multiple numbered slogans that were intended to capture the essence of the relationship:

  • the “three insists” (good-neighborly and friendly cooperation; properly handling differences; and common development);
  • the “four proposals” (strengthen political mutual trust; conduct practical cooperation; advance non-governmental exchanges; and intensify cooperation in regional and multilateral affairs);
  • and the “four significances” (Duterte’s visit signifies the comprehensive restoration of China-Philippine friendship to a normal track; signifies that pragmatic cooperation between China and the Philippines is entering a new stage; signifies that the Philippines is properly handling the South China Sea issue, turning a new page, and returning to the track of bilateral dialogue and consultations; and signifies the comprehensive restoration of the traditional friendship between China and the Philippines).

The phrase “comprehensive restoration” [全面恢复] of the China-Philippines relationship seemed to be particularly popular, mentioned in a press conference by Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin, and multiple high-level quasi-authoritative commentaries in and its overseas edition.

The lofty rhetoric leads to a practical question: What might “practical cooperation” and “properly handling” the South China Sea look like in the near future? Besides official announcements on cooperation regarding “One Belt, One Road,” Chinese infrastructure investment, and drug trafficking, China and the Philippines may also make a deal that shelves sovereignty to interminably-long bilateral negotiations in exchange for short-term fishing rights. This has already been presaged by Thus, China’s move should not be interpreted as an acceptance of the tribunal award, but rather a “head-fake” that allows China to placate the Philippines for its recent good behavior and solidify its long-term actual control over the shoal. This should worry U.S. policymakers, because such a deal, whether implicit or explicit, removes a significant challenge to China’s legal claims and military build-up in the South China Sea, and weakens the solidarity and resolve of other claimant states. Malaysia’s recent decision to buy warships from China may be seen as evidence of this, although some have raised skepticism of the applicability of “domino theory” to Southeast Asia while others have defended the enduring stability of the US-Philippine alliance. While “falling dominoes” is a simplistic and inapt analogy and recent Filipino opposition to Duterte indicates he may have over-reached, it is clear that China sees recent events as deleterious to U.S. influence in the region.

Chinese open sources connected Duterte’s visit with the freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) near Triton and Woody Islands in the Paracels. China’s reaction repeated its bitterly harsh criticism of previous FONOPS, except for a twist—high-level quasi-authoritative commentaries (written under politically-significant pseudonyms) argued that Duterte’s unwillingness to serve as America’s “little brown brother” or a “sacrificial victim” in US-China strategic competition made the FONOP a desperate attempt by the United States to reassert its “hegemony.” Continuing the Trumpian theme, these commentaries argue that U.S. “arrogance” and “under-the-table dirty tricks” will lead to a decline in its international influence, “painful costs,” and even “self-destruction.” Likewise, Japan was not spared similar language in another commentary, which argued Japan would fail in its attempt to pull the Philippines away from China and keep it as a “lackey” within the U.S. alliance system.

Not all Chinese commentators have been quite as bullish about the Philippines’ new shift. Qi Hao, an assistant research fellow with the Institute of American Studies at CASS, warned that “Duterte’s sharp turn… leaves doubt in China about the credibility of such an impulsive rapprochement.” Similarly, Yang Danzhi, a researcher at the National Institute of International Strategy at CASS, argued that Duterte’s hint of an alliance relationship with China and Russia was “emotional talk rather than a warning to the overreaching US” and that a breakup between Washington and Manila seems “unlikely.” Nevertheless, these are decidedly minority opinions in China.

Towards the end of one People’s Daily commentary, the “Voice of China” [钟声] argues that if the United States attempts one last grasp to preserve its hegemony in East Asia in the face of a new strategic reality brought on by the likes of Duterte, then Washington should keep in mind Xi Jinping’s recent directive to the PLA to strengthen “its suffering consciousness, its crisis consciousness, and its mission consciousness.” While the United States cannot change China’s predisposition to issue jeremiads of an America emasculated abroad, it does have a choice this fall whether to make such prophecies come true.


Written by Will

December 5th, 2016 at 1:44 pm

Posted in China,Foreign Policy