China is now advancing its own “peace through strength” approach to the South China Sea, a combination of charm and militarism aimed at countering the United States in a front line theater in their emerging new cold war.

As those great power tensions intensify and war rhetoric mounts, nearby claimant states to the strategic maritime area like the Philippines are increasingly being put in the precarious middle. Indeed, the threat of collateral damage is rising.

During his latest visit (October 25) to the powerful Southern Theater Command, a military outpost in charge of protecting China’s security in the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits, Chinese President Xi Jinping said it was necessary for the military to “concentrate [on] preparations for fighting a war.”

The tough language echoed Xi’s late-2017 order to the country’s armed forces to be ready to “fight and win wars.” The rhetoric this time comes as the US will reportedly make a massive show of force in the South China Sea in November.

China’s bellicose rhetoric, however, has gone hand-in-hand with ramped up charm offensives towards key South China Sea rivals, particularly the Philippines. Manila has said it won’t participate in the US-led show of force, which notably could take place when Xi is visiting the country.

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, Beijing, China, October 20, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter

Ahead of the Chinese leader’s first-ever state visit to the Philippines, China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi made an unusual diplomatic visit to the Southeast Asian country earlier this month.

Atop Wang’s agenda was the negotiation of big ticket infrastructure projects and a possible joint exploration agreement in the South China Sea, both of which could be unveiled during Xi’s visit.

Instead of heading to the capital city of Manila, China’s top diplomat headed instead to Davao City, the hometown of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, where he met key Cabinet ministers as well as the Filipino leader.

Wang’s visit to Davao, where Duterte spends much of his time, should not have necessarily come as a surprise given the rapid ascent of the southern city as the nation’s alternative political capital, especially in matters relating to Philippine-China relations.

Since last May, Davao has repeatedly welcomed Chinese warships on good-will visits, as well as Chinese military aircrafts on refueling missions while traversing the western Pacific. China’s rising military presence in the Philippines’ southern economic hub has taken place without any formal defense agreement between the two neighbors.

That arrangement marks a sharp break with the recent past, when successive Philippine administrations treated China as its chief external security threat.

To counter China’s perceived threat, Duterte’s predecessors welcomed greater rotational military access by traditional allies such as the US and Australia under detailed, ratified defense agreements.

A US navy personnel (L) gives instructions to his Philippine counterpart during drills at a naval base in Sangley point, Cavite City, west of Manila on June 28, 2013. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe
A US navy personnel (L) gives instructions to his Philippine counterpart during drills at a naval base in Sangley point, Cavite City, west of Manila on June 28, 2013. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

Under the current Duterte-led administration, however, China has become a close defense partner without any formal agreement or arrangement, an issue that has piqued certain segments of the defense establishment that remain suspicious of China’s actions and intentions.

China’s frequent military visits to Davao have instead relied on Duterte’s personal permission in his capacity as armed forces’ commander-in-chief – as well as a long-time former mayor of Davao, where his daughter currently serves in the elected position.

The two sides are now exploring bilateral deals to solidify a burgeoning strategic relationship under Duterte, who has prioritized normalization of ties with Beijing over fortifying relations with traditional allies in pursuit of a so-called “independent” foreign policy.

During his visit, Wang discussed billions of dollars worth of promised but not yet delivered Chinese investments, including for Davao. During Xi’s upcoming visit, the two sides are expected to announce several big-ticket joint infrastructure projects.

The two countries are also seeking to announce a framework for a joint exploration deal in energy-rich overlapping claimed areas in the South China Sea. Previous move in that cooperative direction have failed to come to operative fruition.

It’s not clear whether the details of the agreement will be made public anytime soon, however, considering the significant domestic opposition in the Philippines against any resource-sharing deal with China in its claimed waters.

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There are also legal concerns given that the Philippines won its arbitration case against China at an arbitral tribunal at The Hague in mid-2016, a ruling that made clear that the two countries have no overlapping exclusive economic zones (EEZ) as a basis for joint development agreements.

The Philippine constitution, meanwhile, also discourages resource exploration, development and sharing within Philippine-claimed waters with any foreign entities which don’t acknowledge Manila’s absolute sovereignty.

It’s thus likely that Xi and Duterte will sign a more skeletal, generic framework agreement on a joint-exploration scheme led by Chinese energy companies in cooperation with their Filipino counterparts, without explicitly mentioning the question of sovereignty.

China’s top diplomat also made the unprecedented move of personally inaugurating (usually the job of resident ambassadors) a new Chinese consulate in Davao, the latest sign of warming relations with the incumbent administration.

During a dinner meeting with senior Filipino officials in Davao on October 28, the Chinese diplomat, wearing a traditional Filipino barong, reportedly said, “Actually, President Duterte is the most respected and the most important friend for
President Xi Jinping and the Chinese people.”

He added: “Facts have proven and will continue to prove that the friendly policy toward China adopted by President Duterte is completely in keeping with the fundamental and long-term interests of the Philippines and the Filipinos.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (C) standing beside missile  tubes on deck while touring the guided missile frigate Changchun berthed at the Davao international port on May 1, 2017. Photo: AFP/Simeon Celi
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (C) standing beside missile tubes on deck while touring China’s guided missile frigate Changchun berthed at the Davao international port on May 1, 2017. Photo: AFP/Simeon Celi

The Philippines’ top diplomat returned the rhetorical favor.

“Being the biggest Philippine city in terms of land area, and the third largest in terms of population, the inauguration of the Chinese consulate general here in Davao is an auspicious sign of the city’s promise and the bright prospects for our engagement with China,” newly installed Philippine Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr said at the inauguration ceremony.

“We have since enhanced our dialogue and consensus on many levels,” the Filipino diplomatic chief said. “Our practical cooperation in many areas is reaping an early harvest of tangible benefits.”

Davao is at the forefront of that bilateral harvest. Nearly 40% of China’s fruit imports from the Philippines originate from Davao. And the Chinese-Filipino business community in Davao has been a strong supporter of Duterte and his family throughout the decades.

The southern city, among the fastest growing in the Philippines, also hopes to be part of China’s Maritime Silk Road initiative, as it seeks greater Chinese investments and connectivity with China’s and other key Southeast Asian nations’ economies.

Though the future of Philippine-China relations is still far from certain amid rising and escalating security concerns, Wang’s visit ahead of Xi’s historic tour showed that ties are at least symbolically still on the up and up.