[Opine] China’s Long Game

“I’m not so much interested now in fishing. I don’t think there’s enough fish really to quarrel about,” Duterte said Monday. 

“But when we start to mine, when we start to get whatever, it is in the bowels of the China sea, our oil, then by that time… I will send my grey ships there to state a claim,” he said, while also emphasising his desire “to remain friends” and “share whatever it is”.

President Rodrigo Duterte

My motivation to provide weekly links and news fell through over the weekend. I blame it on my reluctance to copy/paste (just for this past week) but also on thoughts that were deeply concerning regarding my nation of birth, the Philippines. This link provides a source of information on my frustrations: Duterte Prepared To Deploy Navy Over SCS Claim.

The quote above, from the linked article, is a quote from the sitting President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte. While he has made a global and notorious name for himself since the start of his helm in 2016, what has been most pressing to me has been his resistance to set the Philippines as priority over China. Instead, Duterte has embraced China and in turn China has asserted claims over disputed territorial areas such as Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands. China’s territorial claims are strategic and structured: since China has built structures on these islands, then these islands must belong to China. China repeats these territorial claims, and continues to build structures on the islands. The world will eventually nod in full agreement that China has not been lying after all but is simply asserting control of it’s territories. This is China’s Long Game. And it has been ongoing since before Duterte.

According to the Central Intelligence Agency ‘s (CIA) World Factbook, the Paracel Islands were annexed by the French to become part of Indochina (now Vietnam). After declaring independence from France in 1945, Paracel Islands was to remain under the jurisdiction of Vietnam. However, “China has occupied all the Paracel Islands since 1974, when its troops seized a South Vietnamese garrison occupying the western islands” (Source). At this time, disputes over Paracel Islands has continued since the Chinese occupation. But why has nothing changed? Why does China continue to hold Paracel Islands as part of its territorial reach? Is “occupation” defined differently for China? And why so?

How far can China claim it’s territorial reach? The “Chinese line of claim”, in red, skirts the island of Palawan, just to the right of Spratly Islands. Palawan is part of the Luzon region of the Philippines. (Image Source)

The Spratly Islands have too many cooks in the kitchen. Rather, too many unwanted cooks in the kitchen. The 100 or so islands have six nations staking territorial surface and sub-surface claims: Brunei, China, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam (Source). Spratly Islands sits south of the South China Sea (a name in contention to Vietnam’s East Vietnam Sea) which reportedly holds “80 percent of global trade by volume and 70 percent by value” (Source). Fishing and reefs are notable for the Spratly Islands. Although land mass is not substantial on Spratly Islands (prior to China’s dredging), the reason of the claims cannot be seen by aerial photos or presently substantiated: oil (Source).

Now this is not the first instance where territorial claims have shifted boundaries to generate the most for the lead in a long game. Take Iraq’s boundaries set by Great Britain after the First World War. Peter Frankopan, author and historian at Oxford University, provides an abridged account of the factors surrounding the importance of Iraq’s boundary to Great Britain. Geological surveys since the 1850s had produced substantial evidence of black gold beneath the sands of what was then called Persia. Acquiring strict access to these fields of promise was imperative for Great Britain. Enter Baron Paul Julius de Reuter (yes, that Reuter) and an “exclusive and definite privilege” to extract “the mines of coal, iron, copper, lead and petroleum” across all of Persia (Frankopan, p.314). Reuter was a British-born German but his ancestry did not matter to Great Britain even after the First World War. Great Britain’s military-complex knew that without oil, war ships and military vehicles would suffer against future battles. Coal, what currently fueled Great Britain’s war vessels, needed to be replaced by oil. Although setbacks were numerous, and local hostilities rife, the birth of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, now known as British Petroleum, was worth the persistence for control of oil in Persia.

“the Allied cause had floated to victory upon a wave of oil.”

A leading French senator agreed jubilantly. Germany had paid too much attention to iron and coal, he said, and not enough to oil. Oil was the blood of the earth, he said, and it was the blood of victory.

Frankopan (p. 321)

So, why the persistent claims to Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands by China? It turns out that the world’s industrial and manufacturing epicentre is without a consistent supply of energy that can sustain its enormous appetite. An article by Yale’s Environment 360, found that 80 percent of China’s electricity is fueled by coal (Source). The article note’s that the greatest energy needs for China are found along it’s eastern seaboard where large metropolitan areas coupled with manufacturing complexes absorb much of the country’s energy. While western China holds a few cities, non compare to the vast energy needs that Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou require. China is known for having the greatest number of natural resources and is also depleting those same resources faster than the rest of the world (Source). For China to hold its position as the leading manufacturer of all things consumption, it must source and obtain a steady supply of energy. Yale’s article states that mining operations in western China have created dust bowls out of prime farming land in Mongolia. Water has also been depleted from western China as mining requires vast amounts of water to sustain operations. An article from the United Nation’s Environment Programme, states that a report “underlines the effects of China’s massive urbanization, and related infrastructure investments. As a proportion of total domestic consumption of materials, the proportion of biomass dropped from 63 per cent to 15 per cent between 1970 and 2008, while consumption of construction minerals increased from 8 per cent to 63 per cent and metal ores and industrial minerals doubled their share from 4 per cent to 8 per cent” (Source).

I want to return to Duterte’s quote at the beginning of my writing.

“I’m not so much interested now in fishing.” This is a betrayal to the people and tribes that call the Philippines home. We are a proud people of the sea. Fish, while regarded as a cheap option for food in other countries, is considered a staple of the Filipino diet. The poorest of the poor can make an effort to catch fish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My grandfather showed me how to catch fish on a beach in Boracay, for just in case I didn’t have a fishing line and hook. This was how he caught fish in a river where he grew up, so as to sustain himself and his family. While some might not regard this line in Duterte’s speech as of importance, I find it as hurtful as the entirety of his quote.

“I don’t think there’s enough fish really to quarrel about.” From what I now know of China’s cavernous appetite for natural resources, this might ring true for the Philippines should China gain control of the waters west of the Luzon region. I am also concerned for the region of Palawan as this is a UNESCO heritage site (Source), one of the earth’s greatest marine biodiversity locations (Source).

A view of Palawan (Source).

“But when we start to mine, when we start to get whatever, it is in the bowels of the China sea, our oil, then by that time…” I’m interested to know about the individuals representing “we” and “our”. How long has this agreement been in place? Since 2016? I am led to believe that an agreement has been made between China and Duterte as he refers to the region as “the China Sea”. The region Duterte refers to was named the West Philippine Sea by his predecessor Benigno Aquino III in 2012 (Source).

“I will send my grey ships there to state a claim.” File this under political theatre, Exhibit A.

As for the remainder of his quote, “to remain friends” and “share whatever it is”, I will resort to criticism as statements of friendship are a cover for under-the-table deals when in politics. I am not the only one to harbour this kind of criticism towards Duterte as politicians in the Philippines have vocally criticized his behaviour (Source 1, Source 2, and Source 3). I understand that China has more resources than the Philippines, however, I also understand the importance of a nation standing up for its sovereignty over its territories and resources. That Duterte has bent the knee in subservience to China, bodes fraught implications for the Philippines. National security is an utmost concern, as are resource, economic, and political securities. Duterte’s lackadaisical attitude towards China has been criticized for over five years yet his response has (disappointingly) been more hot air than fire. I am concerned with how Duterte’s actions, or lack thereof, displaces the certainty of the Philippine’s future and her people. Rather, does the Republic of the Philippines hold the future of the nation within the hands of her people or in the pockets of China?


The ASEAN Post. (2021 April 21). “Duterte Prepared To Deploy Navy Over SCS Claim.” https://theaseanpost.com/article/duterte-prepared-deploy-navy-over-scs-claim

China Power. (2021). “How Much Trade Transits the South China Sea?” Center for Strategic and International Studies. https://chinapower.csis.org/much-trade-transits-south-china-sea/

Flores, H. (2021 April 23). “Philippines files 2 more protests vs China over West Philippine Sea.” MSN News. https://www.msn.com/en-ph/news/national/philippines-files-2-more-protests-vs-china-over-wps/ar-BB1fYPOF

Frankopan, P. (2015). “The Silk Roads: A new history of the world.” Vintage Books: New York. Paperback ISBN: 978-1-101-91237-9. eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-94633-6. Link: https://www.academia.edu/25733912/The_Silk_Roads_A_New_History_of_the_World_by_Peter_Frankopan

Global Security. (2016 November 25). South China Sea Oil and Natural Gas. https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/spratly-oil.htm

Larson, C. (2012 April 30). “China’s Looming Conflict Between Energy and Water.” Yale Environment360. https://e360.yale.edu/features/chinas_looming_conflict_between_energy_and_water

Lewis, J. (2014 August 01). Palawan Photos: The Philippines Biodiversity Frontier. https://www.livescience.com/47011-palawan-philippines-biodiversity-photos.html

Lopez, V. (2021 April 09). “Colmenares says Duterte should end ‘subservience’ to China.” GMA News Online. https://www.gmanetwork.com/news/news/nation/783092/duterte-told-to-end-subservience-to-china/story/

Official Gazette of the Philippines. (2012 September 05). Administrative Order No. 29, s. 2012. https://www.officialgazette.gov.ph/2012/09/05/administrative-order-no-29-s-2012/

United Nations Environment Programme. (2013 August 02). “China Outpacing Rest of World in Natural Resource Use.” https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/press-release/china-outpacing-rest-world-natural-resource-use

UNESCO. (2019). Palawan Biosphere Reserve, Philippines. https://en.unesco.org/biosphere/aspac/palawan

The World Factbook. (2021 April 13). Paracel Islands. Central Intelligence Agency. https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/paracel-islands/

The World Factbook. (2021 April 13). Spratly Islands. Central Intelligence Agency. https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/spratly-islands/#transnational-issues

Yap, D.J., & Santos, T.G. (2021 April 26). “Time to rally Philippine allies against China – Drilon.” Inquirer.net. https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1423726/time-to-rally-ph-allies-vs-china-drilon