China’s reclamation and militarization activities across the South China Sea is again sharply dividing the Philippines’ political establishment, which is struggling to adopt an agreed and optimal response to protect sovereign and strategic interests.

The spirited and increasingly vicious exchanges among senior figures echo a similar episode during the 2012 Scarborough Shoal crisis, when various legislators and executive officials publicly accused each other of treason and betrayal of the national interest.

The months-long naval stand-off saw China take administrative control of the shoal, situated about 200 kilometers from the Philippines’ Subic port and within the nation’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and hence immutably shift the contested maritime region’s strategic dynamics.

Many in the Philippines had hoped the US would intervene in the stand-off via the two sides’ Mutual Defense Treaty, but Washington limited its response at the time to critical rhetoric rather than military action.

Over the past two years, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has effectively ended the Philippines’ years-long role as the core of resistance to China within the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

Much to the chagrin of the traditional political elite as well as the broader public, Duterte has opted to portray China as a national development partner that has to be befriended and when necessary accommodated.

President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, October 20, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Peter - RTX2PML9
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, October 20, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter

The president has also opted to “set aside” the Philippines’ arbitral win against China at The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in mid-2016 – a landmark ruling that nullified the legality of Beijing’s “nine-dash line” map encompassing most of the South China Sea – while keeping mum on Beijing’s continued occupation, reclamation and militarization of Manila-claimed land features in the Spratly islands.

Former President Benigno Aquino III, who oversaw a largely confrontational policy towards China that saw Beijing respond with trade rebukes and threats, is now leading the oppositional charge in challenging Duterte’s China policy.

Aquino recently called on Duterte to be “transparent” in his dealings with China, lest the Philippines risk losing more of its sovereign claims in the South China Sea.

Other critics have raised questions about Duterte’s personal ties to Beijing, including promised infrastructure projects for his hometown of Davao, and whether those may have influenced his wider policy-making.

Duterte’s administration has lashed back at its predecessor, accusing Aquino’s government of provoking unnecessary tensions and losing the Scarborough Shoal to China after a months-long standoff.

Aquino’s criticism came in response to a recent announcement that the Philippines and China are close to finalizing the framework for joint development agreements for energy and other resources in areas of overlapping claims in the South China Sea.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino gestures during the opening of the Public-Private Partnership conference in Manila November 18, 2010. Investors gathering at a Manila hotel this week to hear the Philippines president pitch for $17 billion of infrastructure projects can look out of the  window directly at a symbol of the difficulties of doing  business in the Philippines. The country needs private funds to upgrade its dilapidated  infrastructure as it aims to reverse decades of decline and  lift its growth rate upwards to 7 to 8 percent so that it can catch up with some of its Southeast Asian neighbours. To match analysis PHILIPPINES-INFRASTRUCTURE/ REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco (PHILIPPINES - Tags: BUSINESS POLITICS) - RTXURW4
Former Philippine President Benigno Aquino in a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco 

“We are talking about our exclusive economic zone. We have no obligation to share with them,” the former president insisted, while referencing the 2016 arbitral award that made it legally clear that the two countries have no overlapping EEZs.

He likened any joint development agreement with China as an unfair arrangement, whereby the Asian powerhouse tells its smaller neighbor, “‘What is ours is ours, and what is yours, we share’. It seems like it’s coming true,” Aquino added.

Aquino’s foreign secretary, Albert del Rosario, who took a notably hard policy line towards China, recently accused the Duterte administration of wasting an overwhelming legal victory at The Hague in exchange for uncertain bilateral benefits.

“We thought that this overwhelming victory will be welcomed by them [Duterte administration] and that we would look for a way to move it forward. But that was not to be.”

Del Rosario said in an interview with Rappler, a leading Philippine online news network, “Are we giving up our patrimony for future generations simply because we don’t want to deal with this outcome?” he added.

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His successor, Alan Peter Cayetano, has struck back firmly, accusing his predecessors of stoking unnecessary tensions in the South China Sea by adopting a misguided and ultimately unsuccessful strategy of confrontation.

“We also lost many opportunities for cooperation in fields like science and technology, protection of the environment, among others, all because of the approach you [Aquino], together with former Secretary [Albert] Del Rosario and Senator [Antonio Trillanes], chose to adopt and implement,” Cayetano said.

He lambasted the ex-president for “merely criticizing the government” without offering any concrete solutions. He accused Aquino of losing the Scarborough Shoal to China by sanctioning botched backdoor channeling by Senator Trillanes, then a neophyte legislator who volunteered to diplomatically resolve the impasse.

After a series of high-stakes negotiations, Trillanes, a former military officer and now top Duterte critic, negotiated a mutual disengagement deal with Beijing, which ended the naval standoff. China, however, maintained its presence over the shoal and has since fortified its jurisdictional control over the contested feature.

Trillanes later came under attack from various officials in the government as well as legislature for being bamboozled by China. Leading figures followed with viciously nationalistic exchanges, provoking anger among the Filipino public and prompting Aquino to take a more assertive approach towards China.

Senator Antonio Trillanes attends a senate hearing in Manila on September 15, 2016. Rodrigo Duterte shot dead a justice department employee and ordered the murder of opponents, a former death squad member told parliament September 15, in explosive allegations against the Philippine president. / AFP PHOTO / NOEL CELIS
Senator Antonio Trillanes, September 15, 2016. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

Cayetano recently issued a public statement asking Aquino to reveal the exact circumstances of Trillanes’ engagements with China, why the US didn’t help the Philippines as a treaty ally, and the ex-president’s role during the months-long maritime standoff.

“To respond point per point to your questions, which I suspect Beijing has likewise asked in the wake of its defeat before the PCA and world opinion, is akin to presenting them with a gold mine of information and intelligence – a playbook, so to speak – on our country and our very strategy,” Aquino said in an open letter response.

“That would make us predictable. I believe that would indeed make your life, and our country’s position, more difficult should a similar situation arise down the line,” Aquino added.

“I cautioned everyone about becoming too close with Beijing,” the former president wrote, while ringing alarm bells about a possible debt trap for the Philippines under China’s US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).