Duterte said he would snap ties with America and that it would be China, Russia and the Philippines 'against the world'. Photograph: (Getty)
With Rodrigo Duterte changing equations in the South China Sea, what about Indian economic interests?
Last week, Rodrigo Duterte called upon the US to treat the Philippines with respect. “I’d like to send this message once again for the last time... you talk to us as if we’re still under your colony, as if we are your pawns that you’ll only give aid to depending on many conditions”.
This may have been just one statement but it has changed all the alignments in the world when it comes to the South China Sea. This may have been one last tweak from China to Obama as he exits his presidency.
Since Duterte has begun alienating the Philippines from the US, it is quite likely that the US will not be allowed to use the Palawan air base or the Subic Bay port on Philippine territory. These bases were integral to American forces projecting their might in the South China Sea region, especially since China has three military bases in the Spratly Islands (100 miles away from the Palawan base).
China and Russia are unlikely to let go the opportunity to make the most of this change of heart by the Philippines President. He made it clear that both China and Russia had offered him all the help that he require.
Last week, when meeting Chinese businessmen in capital Beijing, Duterte declared his breaking of ties from America and announced it would be China, Russia and the Philippines “against the world”.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev also seems to have promised a helping hand to Duterte. They both had met on the sidelines of a Southeast Asian leaders’ summit in Laos last month. He said that “They told me, come here, we have everything you need and we will give it to you”.
China wants more control of what goes on in the South China Seas. This is one of the largest concerns of the US. Each year, $5.3 trillion of trade passes through the South China Sea; US trade accounts for $1.2 trillion of this total. Should a crisis occur, the diversion of cargo ships to other routes would harm regional economies as a result of an increase in insurance rates and longer transits.
Conflict of any scale in the South China Sea would hamper claimants from benefiting from its proven and potential riches.
India in choppy waters
India has no sovereign issues in the South China Sea but definitely has economic concerns. India has 55 per cent of its trade passing through its waters, thus, making it essential to maintain ‘freedom of navigation’ there.
Moreover, the Vietnamese Government has offered India seven oil blocks in its territorial waters. Oil and Natural Gas Commission Videsh Limited has been deeply involved in sea drilling and exploration in the area. The Indian Government has pumped in over $5 billion of taxpayer money there. China has often raised concerns and issued warnings to India for its drilling activities in the region.
In fact, in 2011, to frighten India, the Chinese actually cut away the cable of a Vietnamese shipping rig.
However, India has always maintained that it would stay in the region and that every country should respect the concept of ‘freedom of navigation’. Under the Modi Government, the relationship between Vietnam and India has further strengthened in line with the India’s Act East Policy.
The Prime Minister of India recently visited Vietnam before the G20 summit and extended a credit line of $500 million for deepening defence cooperation between the two countries. India is making sure that its interests and presence in the South China Sea are ensured with Vietnam as its main ally. Recently, India has signed energy deals with Brunei as well.
Over 2,500 people have been killed in the last few months in the fight against drugs that Duterte launched. He admonished the outgoing US Ambassador Philip Goldberg for criticising his war on drugs and criticised the US government for setting “many conditions” on aid.
“You can keep your assistance,” Duterte said in a TV speech. “We are not that desperate, we will survive”, he added. Duterte had said there are three million suspected drug users in the country. Drugs have been a big issue in the Philippines. So, the personal criticism did not go down too well with him, and he is committed to cleaning out his country of drugs.
Block the hose
Duterte, in his talk with foreign correspondents in Beijing, made it clear that he was going to keep his country non-aligned in the fight between the US and China.
“At this age, I have now the proper perspective to judge whether the foreign policy is good for us or not. I said a few days ago, that I will charter a new course, changing direction of the foreign policy and being with friends with everybody and with no enemies to contend with. No enemies to harm, no friends to serve.”
But his statements don’t reflect that. He has rubbished US assistance and made it clear that he would go with China and Russia.