Duterte’s talk of moving the Philippines closer to China may have raised eyebrows in Washington, but strategy rather than separation is behind his headline-grabbing foreign policy, Monish Tourangbam and Pawan Amin write.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent foreign policy hyperboles have made headlines around the world, perhaps none more than his snub of the US and his courtship of China. Declarations of shifting alliances and changing partners might make for strong news headlines, but what did Duterte really intend to achieve? For all the sound and fury, was he heralding a dramatic geopolitical shift in the Asia-Pacific by moving the Philippines away from Obama’s America and toward Xi’s China?
This seeming shift in Manila’s foreign policy orientation came not long after US-Philippines ties reached a new high in early 2016. In January last year, the Philippines’ Supreme Court upheld the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement, which provided US troops and equipment with access to military bases in the Philippines on a rotational basis. By contrast, in October, to the applause of the attendees at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, President Duterte claimed to have realigned his country toward better relations with China and Russia, and asserted, “…maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines, and Russia.” He even espoused a separation from the US, both militarily and economically.
Early in 2017, two Russian navy vessels made a port call at Manila. The two countries are currently negotiating the possibility of conducting naval exercises to tackle maritime piracy and terrorism. This comes at a time when President Duterte has scaled down joint military exercises between the US and the Philippines. During the port visit, the Russian ambassador to the Philippines, Igor Anatolyevich Khovaev, offered to sell sophisticated weapons including aircraft and submarines to Manila.
However, post-Donald Trump’s election as US president, new and uncertain dynamics are the order of the day for US foreign policy ventures. Soon after the election, the Philippine President congratulated Donald Trump in a press conference and sounded hopeful on the future of the relationship under the new administration. Manila also appointed a business partner of the President, Jose EB Antonio, as a special envoy to Washington. Additionally, President Duterte has been extended an invitation to Trump’s White House.
Following Obama’s criticism that Duterte’s aggressive war on drugs was violating human rights, Manila realised that they would need strong economic and political partners in order to avoid international ostracism, and clearly knew where to look for such support. While talking about borrowing funds for development assistance from other countries in the Great Hall of the People, President Duterte said, “They lend you the money and you would have to buy from them other articles…” Whereas, with China he quipped to the amusement of the attendees, “if it’s really for a long — they are not really eager to collect. And sometimes they already forget because of our friendship.” Here he was referring to China’s tendency to waive off maturing long-term loans extended to developing countries.
Duterte’s diatribes against the US are also seen by some as an effort to garner support from the Moros – Muslims from his home province of Mindanao – and the leftist movement. At the same time, Duterte might be trying to ease ties with a proximate power like China, in the event of any undesirous fallout with the US. Thus, there might have been a deliberate effort by Manila to downplay The Hague tribunal’s June verdict denouncing China’s historical claims in the South China Sea as lacking any legal validity.
By decoupling its maritime dispute with other aspects of its bilateral ties with China, the Philippines seems to be following an approach similar to Malaysia in its foreign policy. The aim is to provide greater flexibility in framing its foreign policy vis-a-vis China.
Moreover, this is also not the first time the Philippines has become estranged from the US. In 1991, following a misunderstanding over mutual security needs and protests over America’s long presence in the country, the Philippines’ Senate refused to renew the lease agreements for US military bases in Subic Bay. After expelling the US forces from their bases in 1991, the Philippines signed the Visiting Forces Agreement with the US in 1997. The change came about following China’s occupation of Mischief Reef in 1995, which gave the Philippines an appreciation of the limitations of its military capability.
Given China’s assertiveness on maritime territorial disputes, Manila cannot afford to take for granted a powerful ally like the US. Its recent attempts to distance itself from Washington could thus be understood as a hedging strategy between the US and China. As part of this strategy, the Philippines is likely to follow a soft balancing approach towards the US, whereby it will not directly challenge its power, but rather strengthen ties with other powerful countries in order to counter America’s unilateral opposition on issues such as human rights. After returning from Beijing, Duterte himself went on to clarify that he did not wish to sever ties with the US and was, in fact, advocating “separation of foreign policy” rather than “severance of ties”.
Philippine Defence Secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, indicated that assault exercises like the marine amphibious landing exercise PHILBEX and naval exercise CARAT might be cancelled. Military engagements between the two countries are to refocus attention towards humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, counter-terrorism, and counter-narcotics operations.
However, these bilateral exercises are only one part of the defence relationship. The alliance also includes continuous collaboration in the fields of maritime domain awareness, law enforcement, capacity building and other frequent visits that seems impervious to the kind of rhetoric and tactical shifts that President Duterte has employed in recent times.
It would be unwise to prematurely assume that the Philippines is moving closer to China or away from the US. As much as great powers set the agenda and have a greater impact in the international system, weaker powers can also learn to play great power politics and leverage their own interests in the process.
In the case of the Philippines, the previous administration perceived it to be in its interests to tilt closer to the US in order to ensure its maritime security against an aggressive China. By contrast, the Duterte administration, with its focus on domestic issues, could have foreseen international ostracism and loss of support from the US as it implemented the anti-drugs campaign. Repairing ties with China was, therefore, a pragmatic move for Duterte, lest the Philippines find itself in a military conflict without the support of a powerful ally.
At the same time, developing military ties with Russia would force the US to rethink its strategic priorities in the region while giving due consideration to Philippine sensitivities. How Washington responds to this situation will depend entirely on the foreign policy priorities of the new Trump administration.