Who’s bluffing: Duterte or Xi? by Perry Diaz

A recent issue of the Philippines Today, headlines: “Duterte warns China of war over oil, uranium.” I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Was President Rodrigo Duterte bluffing? Or did he finally find the courage to remind Chinese President Xi Jinping of the Philippines’ claim in the West Philippine Sea (WPS)?

Although Duterte had insinuated a few times before about war with China over oil exploration, he wasn’t taken seriously. People would say, “He was just joking.” But this time around, he seemed to be serious. He gave the warning in a speech before the League of Municipalities on the Philippines (LMP), about two months prior to Xi’s scheduled visit to the Philippines in November. What gives?

Duterte considers Xi as a “good friend,” having been able to get huge loans for his infrastructure projects. He told his audience: “Mr. Xi Jinping, we also have a claim. You know we have the award [U.N.’s arbitral tribunal ruling that awarded the Philippines in June 2016]. But I will not insist on recovering the award because it would result in a war, and it will be a massacre, I know. But please be it noted that one day during my term, I will assert (our rights).” Does that mean that by asserting our rights, he’ll go to war ━ a real war, not word war ━ against China?

Which bring another question to the fore: Did Duterte play “offensive” move at a time when Xi is scheduled to visit the Philippines in November? Could it be that he’s posturing to gain positional advantage when he faces Xi to talk or negotiate the issues that have been festering ever since Duterte abandoned pursuing the arbitral award?

Checkmating Duterte

Surmise it is to say, if Duterte were a good chess player, he would move his pieces in positions to prevent Xi from moving his pieces forward within checkmating distance. Xi now has to rethink of revising his playbook when he arrives in the Philippines. He may have to deal with a leader who has changed his tune and might not be too willing to agree or accede to his proposal ━ or demands? ━ in relation to the Philippines’ claims in the WPS.

But Duterte told his audience that if there is war, it “would result in a massacre,” a line he had repeatedly mentioned in the past. This would weaken Duterte’s hand. Besides, Xi is certain that Duterte will never go to war against China, simply because the Philippines doesn’t have the means to go war. War with China would entail the use of naval and air forces in the contested waters. With no heavy warships and just a dozen jet fighters, Duterte was right when he said that it would end in a massacre of Philippine forces.

Duterte’s ace card

Okay, so Duterte was bluffing… just joking again. However, Xi knows he can’t go to war with the Philippines because Duterte has an ace card: the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), which calls for each party to come to the aid of the other in the event of an invasion from China or any other country for that matter.

It’s interesting to note that the anti-American leftists in the Philippines have tirelessly been demanding for the revocation of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the U.S. But what baffles a lot of people is that the leftists don’t demand the abrogation of the MDT. Why? Will it suffice to say that the Filipino people ━ including the leftists ━ treat the MDT as an “insurance” from the threat of war by another country, particularly China?

When the Philippine Senate rejected the renewal of U.S. bases in the country in 1991 and the closing of the bases the following year, China ━ within two years ━ occupied the Mischief Reef. The Philippine government couldn’t do anything to stop the occupation. China could then have invaded the country. But the MDT deterred her. Without it, the Philippines would have fallen easily to Chinese invasion. The “insurance” worked.
The MDT also covers any Philippine naval vessel that is attacked in the high seas. That is why the BPS Sierra Madre, a rusty vessel of World War II vintage, was purposely grounded at the Ayungin Shoal in 1999 with a contingent of Philippine marines stationed on board to keep the Chinese at bay. China had incessantly demanded that the Philippines remove the grounded Sierra Madre. They even offered to haul it away for free! Obviously, once the Sierra Madre is removed, they can then occupy Ayungin Shoal without interference.

Malacca Dilemma

But China isn’t ready to go to war against America. Not yet. It would take many years for China to catch up militarily with the U.S. But because of China’s dependence on foreign oil that accounts for 80% of her oil consumption imported from the Middle East and Africa, China is inflicted psychologically with what is called “Malacca Dilemma.”

The “Malacca Dilemma” is a term coined by former Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2003 on China’s over-reliance on the Malacca Straits where her oil imports from the Middle East and Africa pass through. A conflict in the region or war with the U.S. would affect China’s geopolitical and energy strategies. If war erupts between U.S. and China, the U.S. can block the chokepoint at the mouth of the Strait of Malacca and the Indian Ocean; thus, stopping all oil shipments to China. It is estimated that China has strategic oil reserves that would last for only 10 days. Without oil China would be paralyzed and rendered useless militarily.

In my column, “Duterte’s red lines: Is it a joke?” (June13, 2018), I wrote: “When Duterte told Chinese President Xi Jinping during a recent trip to Beijing that the Philippines intended to drill in the Recto Bank, Xi told him: ‘We’re friends, we don’t want to quarrel with you, we want to maintain the presence of warm relationship, but if you force the issue, we’ll go to war.’ Whoa! It must have hit Duterte like a double whammy!

“In an effort to placate Xi and maintain a friendly relationship, Duterte offered to jointly explore and drill for oil in the Recto Bank on a 60-40 sharing deal. “China has offered joint exploration and joint operation. And I said, maybe, we give you [China] a better deal, 60-40,” Duterte told an audience on April 26.”

Clearly, China wouldn’t go to war against the U.S. and, by extension, the Philippines. China couldn’t afford the economic loss she would incur if war erupts, which makes one wonder: How are the Philippines and China going to play their geopolitical chess game when Xi visits the Philippines? And who is bluffing: Duterte or Xi? Or both? Ω (PerryDiaz@gmail.com)

Updated: 10/26/2018 — 04:50:04