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Change and continuity in the Philippine–US–China triangle

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Filipino student activists hold placards against China during a protest against Duterte’s annual State of the Nation Address in Manila, Philippines, 22 July 2019 (Photo:Reuters/Peter Blaza).

In Brief

Shortly after his landslide election victory in 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared his intention to chart a new course for the Philippines independent of the United States. Just months earlier, he made it clear that he intended to approach China for development assistance.


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Four years on, Duterte shocked the world by unilaterally nixing the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) — the linchpin of the Philippine–US alliance since the end of Cold War.

Duterte’s presidency marks the greatest transformation in Philippine foreign policy since US colonisation a century ago. Some critics portray him as a Manchurian candidate — a ‘Filipino Hugo Chavez’ — who will turn a long-time US ally into China’s regional proxy. Others dismiss him as more bark than bite, highlighting the robust fundamentals of Philippine­–US relations despite Duterte’s repeated threats to sever them.

A more careful examination reveals an indeterminate picture, where Duterte largely lacks unilateral power to dictate the country’s foreign and defence policy. He faces pushback from both the defence establishment and the general public, which view China as a leading strategic threat.

There are concerted efforts, including by Duterte’s top officials, to rescue the alliance. Even within his own cabinet, several key officials seek to maintain the VFA, while the Philippine Senate, dominated by Duterte allies, has challenged the constitutionality of the President’s unilateral decision at the Supreme Court. The result is a bifurcated foreign policy with various elite factions nurturing competing strategic patrons.

There are two competing schools of thought on Duterte’s impact on Philippine foreign policy. The first posits that Duterte’s grievous rhetoric should be taken seriously, but not literally. After all, he has yet to act on his repeated threats to eject US soldiers stationed in the country.

The second argues that Duterte’s presidency is inflicting significant damage on the Philippine–US alliance amid a determined so-called ‘pivot to China’.

In reality, Philippine foreign policy under Duterte is a mixture of change and continuity.

Unlike his China-sceptic predecessor Benigno Aquino — who took China to international court over South China Sea disputes — Duterte made it clear that Beijing is a preferred national development partner. He also proudly told the Chinese media that the United States is an unreliable partner, hence his preference for a ‘meek’ and ‘humble’ relationship with Beijing. This signals a largely transactional approach towards the great powers.

This dramatic shift in foreign policy is partly an upshot of Duterte’s brand of proto-nationalism (or ‘Dutertismo’), with his presidential campaign serving as a referendum on the Philippines’ West-leaning liberal oligarchy. Duterte’s decisive victory against his two US-trained rivals, Manuel Roxas III and Grace Poe, served as a partial rejection of the country’s US-centric foreign policy.

Duterte also adroitly exploited a climate of fear, entrenched political patronage and historically high approval ratings to push the Philippines’ ‘presidential bandwagoning’ system to its logical limit. As a result, he swiftly colonised different branches of the state, creating an imperial presidency for the first time since the fall of the Marcos dictatorship. This ‘authoritarianisation’ allowed Duterte to radically recast his country’s foreign policy. Duterte also exploited an acute credibility gap in US commitment to the Philippines, which was fully on display during the Scarborough Shoal crisis.

In stark contrast, China offered a clear matrix of costs — including military escalation — and benefits, namely large-scale investments.

Still, Duterte faces concerted pushback from other centres of power in the Philippines, especially the defence establishment. Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana openly criticises China’s ‘bullying’ of the Philippines. And on multiple occasions, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) leaked information to the media about China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea, while openly calling on the government to take a tougher stance against China.

The Philippines’ top brass remains broadly supportive of robust defence cooperation with the United States. The Trump administration is also doubling-down on pushing back against China, expanding defence aid and clarifying the parameters of its commitment to regional allies such as the Philippines.

The AFP is yet to sign a major defence deal or strategic agreement with China. Philippine National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon has openly warned about the potential national security ‘threat’ posed by Chinese investments in the Philippines. The views of the AFP — which has facilitated the downfall of two presidents in recent decades — matter to Duterte, who has openly confessed his fears that the military would oust him if he crossed certain redlines.

Despite his popularity, Duterte is under constant public pressure. Surveys repeatedly show that close to nine out of ten citizens want the Philippines to assert its sovereign rights and resist China’s encroachment into Philippine waters. Thanks to China’s relentless militarisation and ‘militia-sation’ of the South China Sea disputes — coupled with a near-absence of any significant Chinese infrastructure investments — Duterte faces unabated pushback against his Beijing-friendly strategic orientation.

At the same time, intensifying disagreements over human rights issues, including US imposition of travel bans and other potential sanctions against top Philippines officials, has led to a de facto diplomatic freeze in Philippine–US relations.

By unilaterally abrogating the VFA, Duterte risks emboldening Chinese adventurism within Philippine waters, including the prospective militarisation of the contested Scarborough Shoal. He also risks weakening the country’s ability to deal with a whole host of non-traditional security threats.

The upshot is a strategic stalemate, whereby the Philippines is neither developing a new alliance with China, nor fully abandoning its defence cooperation with the United States. Despite his best efforts to revolutionise Philippine foreign policy, Duterte has — at best — ushered in an era of strategic despondency.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based scholar, columnist and author of The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China, and the New Struggle for Global Mastery (Palgrave, 2019) and The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy (Palgrave, 2017).

A longer version of this article appears in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Middle power game’, Vol. 12 No. 1.

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