The expressive president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, once gushed about his Chinese counterpart, “I just simply love Xi Jinping”. But the infatuation has faded. Upset that Chinese vessels have been mobbing the main Philippine-occupied island in the South China Sea, Mr Duterte rasped at China to “lay off”, and threatened an aggressive response. The same day, April 4th, American and Philippine forces practised storming a beach facing the South China Sea, in their biggest joint exercises since 2016, the year Mr Duterte announced a “separation” from America, his country’s only formal military ally. The Philippine pivot from America to China, dreamt up by his government to ease confrontation with China over overlapping claims in the South China Sea, has become a pirouette.
For more than three months a flotilla of fishing vessels from China’s maritime militia has been swarming around Philippine-occupied Thitu, an island in the Spratly archipelago which is home both to a small military base and 200-odd civilians (see map). The manoeuvres appear to be a response to Philippine construction work on the island, to repair the airstrip and build a beaching ramp for small craft.