In the lead-up to China’s Belt and Road Forum, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte faces the biggest foreign policy crisis of his tenure, one that threatens to derail his government’s engagement gambit with Beijing.

As the Filipino leader heads to Beijing for the summit, marking his fourth visit to China in under three years, his government’s China-leaning policy is under rising fire amid hot-boiling territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Since January, as many as 275 Chinese vessels have swarmed the Philippine-claimed Thitu Island in a bid to prevent Manila from upgrading the island’s facilities, including an airstrip.

The Philippine military has reported 657 sightings of Chinese paramilitary vessels, likely belonging to the People’s Liberation Army Maritime Militia Forces over the period.

China’s paramilitary vessels have also been spotted around nearby Loita Island, another Philippine-claimed land feature in the maritime area.

China’s provocation comes as speculation mounts Beijing aims to establish a game-changing Aerial Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) for the sea, a move that would inevitably ratchet tensions with other powers, including the US and Japan.

China’s ongoing siege of Thitu island has provoked an anti-China outcry across the Philippines, significantly ahead of crucial midterm elections that will serve as a de facto referendum on Duterte’s controversial rule.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) gestures as Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte (R) looks on during a state banquet at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila on November 20, 2018. Photo" AFP/Mark R. Cristino/Pool
Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) gestures as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (R) looks on during a state banquet at the Malacanang Presidential Palace, Manila, November 20, 2018. Photo” AFP/Mark R Cristino/Pool

Recent surveys show anti-China sentiment is surging across the country, with one poll showing that only two out of ten Filipinos had favorable views of China’s intentions.

This has provided a nationalistic opening for opposition and government critics to rally public opinion against Duterte’s policies ahead of elections.

Under that growing public pressure, Duterte’s government had recently adopted unusually tough language towards Beijing, notably after initially downplaying the sea situation.

Duterte suggested earlier this month that his armed forces should prepare for “suicide missions” against China’s maritime forces.

Duterte’s spokesman Salvador Penelo has described the ongoing siege as an “assault” on Philippine sovereign territory. “We’re supposed to be friends. As the president says, friends don’t do that,” he said.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin went further by saying that he has “no fear of war” to resist China’s actions around Thitu island, even if it resulted in World War III.

In a major reversal, the Philippine government has also threatened to raise its 2016 landmark win at an arbitral tribunal at The Hague against China’s sweeping South China Sea claims at the United Nations’ General Assembly.

Filipino fishermen pass by a large Chinese vessel at the disputed Scarborough Shoal. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro
Filipino fishermen pass by a large Chinese vessel at the disputed Scarborough Shoal. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

Until now, Duterte’s government has played down the award in a bid to smooth relations with China. Beijing has disputed the judgement and made clear through its recent actions that there is no enforcement mechanism behind the ruling.

Strategic experts believe that China is deploying a “cabbage strategy”, whereby it systematically surrounds, swarms and suffocates other claimant states’ supply-lines in the contested sea. The strategy’s objectives are achieved through a multi-layer deployment of Chinese military and paramilitary forces to disputed areas.

Chinese generals have publicly acknowledged the strategy in previous press interviews.

“For those small islands, only a few troopers are able to station on each of them, but there is no food or even drinking water there,” Chinese Major General Zhang Zhaozhong said in a 2013 interview with China Central Television, openly boasting at the time about China’s long-term strategic plan to dominate the South China Sea.

“If we carry out the ‘cabbage strategy’, you will not be able to send food and drinking water onto the islands. Without the supply for one or two weeks, the troopers stationed there will leave the islands on their own. Once they have left, they will never be able to come back,” the prominent Chinese defense expert said.

He described Philippine-occupied land features such as the Thitu and Loita islands as “inherent Chinese territories”, which have been “illegally occupied by the Philippines” and “stolen”, but can “be returned” to China through so-called gray zone operations, where force and coercion are deployed short of igniting an actual war.

China paramilitary armada is also likely monitoring and seeking to restrict the Philippines’ ongoing efforts to maintain and upgrade its facilities on the lightly populated Thitu island, strategic experts say.

A view of Philippine occupied (Pag-asa) Thitu island in disputed South China Sea April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro - RTS1392X
An aerial view of the Philippine-occupied Thitu island in the disputed South China Sea, April 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

Some prominent scholars in China have tried to justify the ongoing siege by warning that Thitu’s upgraded facilities could be used by the US in the event of an armed conflict in the area. The US had previously offered financial assistance to upgrade Thitu’s aging facilities.

Duterte has so far blocked US efforts to preposition weapons in Philippine bases as allowed under the bilateral 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement signed by the predecessor Benigno Aquino government. This has until now hampered America’s preparations for contingencies in the contested sea.

Duterte’s cold shoulder towards the US, however, has appeared to motivate China to put its plans to dominate the South China Sea into overdrive, including through ramped up reclamation activities and deployment of heavy weaponry on its manmade features, including surface-to-air missiles.

“US warships could sail near the island and fighter jets could land or take off from the runway, directly threatening the safety of China’s island reef outposts in the Spratly Islands,” Xu Liping, a director for Southeast Asia studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, recently told the South China Morning Post.

The Chinese scholar described the ongoing siege as a “mild warning” against any potential Philippine plan for sharing those bases with its mutual defense treaty ally.

Zhang Mingliang, another Chinese expert, echoed a similar line, arguing the Chinese vessels’ deployment was “a posture of warning over the new construction [on Thitu]”, which constitutes the “changing the status quo of the island.”

“Manila could share those military facilities currently under repairs and upgrades on Thitu with the US for the purpose of surveillance on China, undermining China’s military advantage in the South China Sea through the building of man-made islands,” the Chinese academic.

South China Sea-Map-Reefs-China-Philippines copy

The Chinese armada is also preventing the Philippines from building facilities on the Sandy Cay, a sandbar within the territorial waters of Thitu island, while paramilitary vessels have also been spotted near the Manila-claimed Kota island.

In recent years, Beijing has repeatedly deployed warships and paramilitary vessels to the vicinity of the low-tide elevation, which it claims as part of it nearby occupied Subi Reef.

China has also upped the ante through large-scale harvesting of clams and precious fishery resources in the Scarborough Shoal, another Philippine-claimed land feature in the area.

Beijing seized control over the shoal after a months-long naval standoff with Manila in 2012, a move which poisoned bilateral relations and drove the then Benigno Aquino administration to take the sea disputes to The Hague.

The mass clam harvesting, as well as harassing and sometimes blocking Philippine fisherman from the shoal’s fishing grounds has sparked a backlash among the Filipino public, manifested in street protests and a social media storm.

In the days leading up to Duterte’s visit to China, his government has once again flip-flopped by adopting a more conciliatory tone, a hot-cold tactic his government has deployed in a bid to simultaneously deter and embrace Beijing.

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
Rodrigo Duterte (C) on China’s guided missile frigate Changchun, Davao international port, May 1, 2017. Photo: AFP/Simeon Celi

“I am not going down in history as a clam defender, okay? It’s a complaint; we’re looking into it; but these are just [expletive] food,” top Filipino diplomat Locsin tweeted on April 19. “No one goes to war for clams…but they just happen to be OUR food,” the tweet said.

On April 17, at a midterm election campaign rally of his ruling PDP-Laban party, Duterte called on China to “meet halfway” on the disputes.

“These idiots [opposition members], they want me to confront China. If I do that, there will be a massacre. Their airplanes can reach Manila in 14 minutes. They can bomb us to the heavens. We cannot oppose, simply,” Duterte said, returning to his more quiescent stance on the disputes.

Duterte is widely expected to meet his counterpart Xi Jinping at the second Belt and Road Forum staged between April 25-27, in hope of realizing billions of dollars worth of largesse Beijing has promised but not yet delivered to the Philippines.

The two sides are poised to sign five major agreements, focusing on economic relations as well as cooperation in education, anti-corruption and counter-narcotics, on the sidelines of the forum. That will follow on a raft of agreements the two sides signed during Xi’s visit to Manila last November.

But as Duterte makes his fourth visit to China in nearly three years, the Philippine leader is caught in the perilous middle of rising anti-Beijing sentiment at home and an increasingly aggressive China at sea, with no easy way ahead on either front.