Maverick Filipino president looking for ally in Vietnam

By Dien Luong   September 28, 2016 | 03:00 am GMT+7
Maverick Filipino president looking for ally in Vietnam
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte arrives at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi, Vietnam September 28, 2016. Photo by Reuters/Kham

The president's tough image has raised eyebrows both at home and abroad.

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte starts a two-day visit to Vietnam on Wednesday, and likely on the agenda will be the South China Sea dispute, a lingering issue that has found Manila and Hanoi in the same boat and pitted the U.S. and China against each other.

The visit comes at a tumultuous time for the Philippines, with the tough image of the new president and his rough talks raising hackles both at home and abroad. He has grabbed headlines for not holding back on verbal attacks against the world’s highest profile figures, among them Pope Francis and U.S. President Barack Obama.

At home, the peso plunged to its lowest since 2009 on Monday, and foreign investors have dumped local shares for the sixth week in a row, fretting over Duterte's anti-U.S. rhetoric and controversial war on drugs. According to some estimates, his behavior may have caused foreign investors to pull out close to $400 million from the stock market this September alone, causing both the index and gross domestic product to fall about 2.5 percent.

It is in this context that a visit that seeks to bolster bilateral ties with an immediate neighbor like Vietnam is not hard to fathom, analysts say.

“I think that President Duterte’s advisors and other policy makers realize the problems [facing the Philippines],” Ngo Vinh Long, a Vietnamese professor of history and a Southeast Asia analyst at the University of Maine in the U.S., said. “Hence they have arranged for this trip to both restore the Philippines’ image as well as to promote economic exchanges.”

Filipino foreign affairs spokesman Charles Jose was quoted by the local media as saying on Monday that the president and Vietnamese leaders would discuss various areas of bilateral exchanges, including maritime cooperation, law enforcement and defense cooperation, increasing two-way trade and investment and strengthening joint cultural activities, as well as heightened exchanges in the agriculture and fisheries sectors.

Duterte will also be prepared to discuss the South China Sea (known as the East Sea in Vietnam) issue with his counterparts in Vietnam, Jose said.

“If ever this will be discussed, this will be in the context of, of course, emphasizing the need or the importance of maintaining, peace, stability and security in the region,” he said.

Vietnam and the Philippines are two countries that have been directly affected by the lingering dispute in the South China Sea, which Manila calls the West Philippine Sea.

China routinely outlines the scope of its territorial claims through maps featuring a so-called nine-dash line, a demarcation that includes about 90 percent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea. But these maps have been emphatically rejected by international experts and fly in the face of competing claims by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. Vietnam and the Philippines have remained the most outspoken opponents of China’s territorial claims.

In July, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague dismissed China’s expansive claim to sovereignty over the strategically important and resource-rich waters in a case brought by the Philippines in 2013. Beijing has since snubbed the ruling, calling it a “farce”.

Since taking office in June, Duterte has exhibited his skepticism of the U.S.’s much-touted strategic “pivot" towards the Asia-Pacific region. On the other hand, he has also sought to ramp up “open alliances” with China and Russia.

Critics of the U.S. pivot policy point out that in 2012, when China seized control of a disputed reef known as the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, preventing Filipino fishermen from accessing the rocky outcrop, the U.S. “did nothing”, even though the Philippines is its treaty ally.

Duterte’s administration said it would be willing to begin direct talks with Beijing after the verdict in The Hague, with negotiations to cover jointly exploiting natural gas reserves and fishing grounds within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

While some analysts say Duterte’s more conciliatory approach to China has sent very mixed signals to the U.S., others consider this a no-nonsense move.

“It has been partly designed not to rub salt into China’s wounds after the Philippines’ victory in order not to provoke China into more adventurous adventures, especially at a time when the U.S. is temporary distracted by the Congressional and presidential elections.” Long said. “If Duterte’s approach could calm down an aggressive China, it would be to the benefits of all concerned—China included.”

At the end of the day, at a time when 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) remain deeply divided over the bloc’s handling of the South China Sea issue, “the Philippines and Vietnam need to stand firmly together,” said Malcolm Davis, an Asian security analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Given that, the purpose of Duterte’s visit to Vietnam is crystal clear.

“There needs to be a close diplomatic bond forged between Hanoi and Manila on this issue,” Davis said.

* VIET ANH contributed to this report

Related news:

Vietnam calls for self-restraint, peaceful solution to lingering sea dispute

Philippines says omission of arbitration ruling in ASEAN statement not victory for China

 
 
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