Next Philippine Leader Could Change S. China Sea Policy

Rodrigo Duterte (file image)

Published May 10, 2016 8:57 PM by The Maritime Executive

China's Foreign Ministry called Tuesday for the next leader of the Philippine government to join in a "path of healthy development" to manage the two nations' bilateral relations. The ministry's wish could come true: analysts suggest that the likely winner of the election is an unknown when it comes to foreign policy, and on the South China Sea dispute, he has given mixed signals for his intentions.  

The Philippines and China are engaged in a dispute over Chinese claims in the South China Sea, especially in the Spratly Islands, and the Philippines expects a ruling on the disagreement from the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague sometime this month. Observers expect that the court is likely to rule in favor of the Philippines; China has refused to participate or to recognize the validity of the case, and it is as yet unclear whether China will abide by the ruling. 

The South China Morning Post reported in April that the People's Liberation Army expected to begin dredging and land reclamation activity at Scarborough Shoal in the Spratly Islands later this year - a decision that would be seen as an act of open defiance if the court should rule against them. 

has signaled that he will enter  But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang called instead for a plan for "dual-track" negotiations.  Under this alternative, nations "directly concerned" in maritime disputes would reach diplomatic agreement, while regional body ASEAN and outside actors (including the United States) would remain aside to "jointly maintain peace and stability."

The probable winner of the Philippine presidential election, Rodrigo Duterte – referred to in the press as "the Punisher" and  "Duterte Harry" for his brash style and aggressive stance on crime – has suggested that he would ride a Jet Ski to plant a Philippine flag on disputed island claims. However, Duterte has also said that he would be open to adjusting the Philippines' stance if China were interested in making investments. "Build us a railway just like the one you built in Africa, and let's set aside disagreements for a while," he said in February. He has also expressed skepticism about the arbitration process, and has left open the possibility for bilateral – rather than multilateral – negotiations with China.