MANILA — When a Chinese trawler rammed a Philippine fishing boat in the South China Sea last month — forcing 22 fishermen to abandon their stricken vessel — officials in Manila were quick with condemnations.
“Cowardly,” the Philippines’ defense secretary said.
Military commanders followed suit, telling reporters it was time for President Rodrigo Duterte to get tough with China after years of increasingly cozy ties.
Instead, the Philippine leader sided with Beijing.
Eight days after the sinking, Duterte dismissed the June 9 crash near Reed Bank as a “little maritime accident” and rebuffed the pleas of Philippine fishermen demanding a firmer stance to protect their crafts in the disputed South China Sea.
“I’m sorry, but that’s how it is,” Duterte said.
Then the defense secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, walked back his earlier statement, saying that perhaps the Chinese “didn’t mean to brush against our boat.” The boat’s captain joined in — saying he was no longer sure if they had been rammed at all.
Manila’s flip-flop over the stranded fishermen — despite evidence in a coast guard report that the Chinese mariners acted inappropriately — shows how far the long-standing U.S. ally has fallen under Beijing’s spell.
Greased by Chinese loans and grants under President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road infrastructure program, the Duterte administration has warmed to its giant neighbor while playing down the dispute over their competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.
[Boat collision in disputed waters tests China-Philippines relationship]
Now the longer-range questions stand in sharp relief: How far will Duterte go to support his new friends in Beijing at the risk of isolating his key military ally, Washington?
The Philippine government “has an incentive for this to be an accident,” Gregory B. Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, said of the boat incident.
Manila’s approach, he said, is “predicated on the idea that if it’s just quiet about its claims and nice enough, Beijing will reciprocate” with investment and development assistance.
Beijing claims sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea, which connects East Asia with the Indian Ocean and is one of the world’s busiest trade routes. In recent years Beijing has occupied and built up disputed reefs and islets with runways, radar and military installations, prompting alarm from the United States and its allies.
An international tribunal in 2016 upheld the Philippines’ claims to territorial waters. But China has shrugged off the ruling.
To assert its territorial claims, China deploys what security experts refer to as the maritime militia — a paramilitary force of vessels that swarm disputed fishing grounds, conduct surveillance and prevent Philippine and other fishermen from accessing sandbars and reefs claimed by the Philippines and other littoral states.
The militia “plays a major role in coercive activities to achieve China’s political goals without fighting,” the Pentagon said in a report in May.
For Duterte’s critics, his meek response to the boat incident demonstrates the extent to which China has seduced him into compliance. Some accuse him of selling out his country.