6: The Philippines and the South China Sea Dispute: Duterte’s Hedging Approach with China and the United States

When President Rodrigo Roa Duterte visited China for the fifth time on August 28 to September 1, 2019, the United States (US) Navy had conducted more Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in 2019 than in any year during the same period, to challenge China’s position in the South China Sea (SCS). Duterte’s fifth visit to China provided him with opportunities to meet President Xi Jinping for the eighth time, amid increasing US–China rivalry in the SCS.

Duterte set a historic record for having the most meetings by a Filipino president with a Chinese counterpart during a mid-term in office, notwithstanding Manila’s long-time security alliance with the US. Duterte’s visits to China strongly demonstrated his ardent commitment to befriend and comprehensively engage with China on many pragmatic economic and political considerations, with a high expectation that this kind of appeasement could lead to the peaceful management of disputes in the SCS, a vital issue touching the core of Philippine national security interest.

One important outcome of Duterte’s 2019 visit to China was the landmark implementation of the November 2018 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) entered into by the Philippines and China to facilitate their joint cooperation on the development of oil and gas resources in the SCS, particularly in areas being claimed by the Philippines called the West Philippine Sea (WPS), located mainly in the Spratlys. The Philippines and China agreed to move to the next step of joint cooperation by creating steering committees tasked to supervise the process.

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