• Richard Heydarian writes that hawks in Manila are out of patience with president’s ‘kowtowing’ to Beijing over contested waters, but surprised by plans to discuss 2016 tribunal ruling
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (left) will meet Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing later this month. Photo: Simon Song

"When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" British economist John Maynard Keynes is often quoted as saying, emphasising the importance of avoiding rigid doctrines in favour of flexibility.

In many ways, this is the position Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has taken with regard to China. He prefers pragmatism based on facts rather than an intractable ideological confrontation with Beijing.

And, ahead of his fifth visit to China this month, the Filipino leader has said that he will finally raise the ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in July 2016 to assert his country's rights in the South China Sea. China has flatly rejected the tribunal's jurisdiction and its final ruling, which challenged many of Beijing's historical claims in the contested area.

Duterte's surprising announcement came after weeks of rising bilateral tensions, with his senior Filipino generals openly questioning warming relations with China and the latter's behaviour in Philippine waters.

"The arbitral ruling, we will talk about (it) … That's why I'm going to China," Duterte said during his speech this month at the Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry in Manila.

The announcement took many by surprise, especially China hawks in the Philippines, who have accused the president of kowtowing to Beijing. After all, Duterte said that he would "set aside" the arbitration award in the interest of improving relations with China.

"I will not impose anything on China. Why? Because the politics here in Southeast Asia is changing," Duterte said in his first months in office, maintaining that engagement with Beijing was paramount as US power declined.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to raise South China Sea ruling with Xi Jinping

Over the next two years, he consistently argued that raising the arbitration award and asserting Philippine rights in the area will risk a no-win conflict with the Asian powerhouse.

In effect, he argued that confronting China in the South China Sea was an exercise in futility, thus the need to remain "meek and humble" in exchange for Beijing's "mercy".

Duterte's acquiescence, however, provoked a backlash at home. Opinion surveys consistently showed that vast majority of Filipinos wanted the government to take a tougher stance against China.

According to a Social Weather Stations' survey in June, 87 per cent of Filipinos wanted the government to raise the 2016 tribunal ruling.

President Rodrigo Duterte is feeling pressure from within his cabinet and in the streets over the presence of Chinese vessels in South China Sea territory claimed by Manila. Photo: Reuters

More importantly, however, Filipino generals have ramped up their criticism of Beijing and its behaviour in Philippine waters.

Last month, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana openly accused China of "bullying" smaller claimant states in the South China Sea.

"The bottom line is what they're saying does not match their actions in the (South China Sea)", he declared, contradicting Duterte's assertion that China was a trusted "friend".

"They want peace in the South China Sea, blah blah blah, but it does not reflect (in) what they are doing on the ground," Lorenzana said.

Senior Philippine defence officials have accused China of harassing Filipino fishermen, illegally occupying Scarborough Shoal, illegal fishing and research activities in Philippine waters, and swarming Philippine-held islands in the Spratlys with an armada of maritime militias.

Philippine defence chief accuses Beijing of 'bullying' over claims in the South China Sea

The Philippine military has also stepped up its criticism of China in recent days.

Brigadier General Edgard Arevalo, spokesman for the armed forces, accused Beijing of "duplicity" and "deception" after claiming that several Chinese warships shut down their automatic identification system transponders while passing through Philippine territorial waters.

"In this case, obviously there was no diplomatic clearance," Arevalo said. "The fact that they went undetected by radar " because the suspicion was they switched off their identification system " then by all intents and purposes, this can be classified as a deception or a violation of the rule of law."

The Philippine defence establishment is questioning a growing Chinese economic presence in the country. For instance, the Philippine navy recently criticised plans to lease several northern and northwestern islands to Chinese companies.

Chinese investors have sought to lease Fuga Island, located in the northern province of Cagayan, as well as the Grande and Chiquita islands near Subic Bay, the site of major naval facilities. The projects are ostensibly for tourism development purposes, but Philippine security officials remain sceptical.

Captain Jonathan Zata, Philippine navy spokesman, questioned the deals, saying that they were "strategic features", which should remain within Philippine control.

Lorenzana, who rejected plans by several Chinese companies to purchase a major port at Subic, has called for an "intelligence assessment" of the projects.

Last month, national security adviser General Hermogenes Esperon upped the ante by describing the influx of Chinese workers and tourists into the Philippines as a potential national security "threat". In response, Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jnr proposed the cancellation of visa upon arrival arrangements for Chinese tourists.

Philippines lodges diplomatic protest with Beijing over South China Sea 'hit and run' that sunk fishing vessel

Against the backdrop of rising criticism of China at home, Duterte is toughening his rhetoric to stave off a full-scale backlash. Yet, there are little signs that he is willing to reconsider his rapprochement with China during his twilight years in office. If anything, the visit to Beijing is likely to be an effort to ease tensions and explore new compromises, which will allow Duterte to continue his "pivot to China" policy.

Richard Heydarian is an Asia-based author and academic

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