‘We will have to thank them for those islands’: The Philippines’ mixed signals on the South China Sea


In July 2016, a tribunal at the Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines on an arbitration case that the island nation’s former government had brought against China, concerning territorial claims in the South China Sea. But in the previous month, controversial strongman Rodrigo Duterte assumed the presidency, and he pursued a cordial rapprochement with China.

Duterte and his underlings have been sending mixed signals ever since then:

  • On Monday, we noted the Filipino government spokesperson who portrayed his government as “helpless in the face of China’s continued construction” on one of the disputed South China Sea reefs.
  • Yesterday, we linked to a Channel NewsAsia report about Duterte ordering a ban on all foreign scientific research off the country’s Pacific coast, “despite earlier allowing Chinese oceanographers to operate there.”
  • Today, Rappler reports a rather eccentric statement from a Filipino presidential spokesperson who said that while China’s island-building in disputed territories is worrisome now, “there will come a time when China’s might has ceased, when we will have to thank them for those islands.”

In other South China Sea news:

  • Singapore’s Defense Minister, Ng Eng Hen 黄永宏, says there is “very strong support” within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for participation in joint maritime military exercises with China scheduled for later this year. See the report on Today (Singapore). All 10 member states will take part.
  • However, ASEAN foreign ministers “on Tuesday aired concerns over China’s activities in disputed areas of the South China Sea, noting that land reclamation continued even after talks began between their 10-member bloc and Beijing to agree a code of conduct,” according to Reuters.
  • “Chinese Navy and telecommunication corporations are cooperating to upgrade the communication systems on some South China Sea islands and reefs,” reported Xinhua News Agency last week. Meanwhile, “China upgrades telecom services on disputed islands” is how VOA headlined its story on it this morning.