“Thank you for loving us and helping us survive the rigors of this life,” declared Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, shortly after China extended a generous aid package to its Southeast Asian neighbor earlier this year. “I made the correct decision [to improve ties with China]. I went alone [on] foreign policy then I went to China and talked to President Xi Jinping [last October].”
Those were particularly powerful statements in a county, where majority of the population hold negative views of China. Since his unlikely ascent to presidency in mid-2016, the tough-talking Filipino president has vowed to usher in a new era in Philippine foreign policy, pursuing an ‘independent’ foreign policy, which “will not be dependent on the United States”.
When Washington criticized his human rights record, particularly in light of Duterte’s bloody crackdown on illegal drugs, Duterte displayed his independent-mindedness with sound and fury. He told the superpower to ‘go to hell’, threatened to abrogate the 1951 Philippine-U.S. military treaty, and went so far as cussing American officials, including former President Barack Obama and his Ambassador to Manila, Philip Goldberg.
Meanwhile, he pursued closer relations with both China and Russia. In Beijing, Duterte sees a partner for national development, a friendly and brotherly country, and also a potential military ally. The two countries are currently negotiating a decades-long military agreement. The Duterte administration is also pursuing closer defense cooperation with Russia, which has offered advanced weaponry. Duterte has even described his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, as his ‘favorite hero’.
As a result, the Philippines is often portrayed as an American ally on the verge of defecting to Eastern powers, with Duterte firmly overseeing this strategic shift. Yet, a closer look reveals that the tough-talking Filipino leader doesn’t have the requisite power to unilaterally reshape his country’s foreign policy, nor is he interested in fully severing ties with the Philippines’ century-old ally, America.
The Philippine defense establishment – composed of leading generals, defense officials, senior diplomats, and influential intellectuals – has increasingly resisted any major reorientation in Philippine foreign policy. Unlike Duterte, they broadly see China through the prism of suspicion and grievance, while viewing full-spectrum security cooperation with America as the Philippines’ best insurance policy in the South China Sea.
The Philippine foreign policy, therefore, is a contested battlefield, where pragmatists and hawks are battling for the soul of the Southeast Asian country’s external policy. And this largely explains the sheer volume of contradictory statements often emanating from the Duterte administration, which is still struggling to craft a coherent foreign policy amid fierce internal debates.
Not long after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Philippines earlier this year, where he offered an $8.7 billion investment package, China dispatched its Commerce Minister Zhong Shan and Vice Premier Wang Yang to Manila. The visiting Chinese officials offered the Philippines a large-scale investment package of their own, hoping to win over the heart and soul of the increasingly friendly Duterte administration.
From Duterte’s point of view, China is a crucial partner for infrastructure development in the Philippines, including in his home island of Mindanao, which is in desperate need of modern roads, railways, and bridges. In May, Duterte will once again visit China to attend the widely-anticipated One Road, One Belt (OBOR) summit, where he is expected to touch base with President Xi Jinping and discuss prospects for a major upgrade of bilateral economic relations.
Given the significant power asymmetry between China and the Philippines, Duterte argues, the best course of action is to find a pragmatic compromise, and instead focus on trade and investment relations. To profess his goodwill, Duterte made a series of significant concessions to China, ranging from his refusal to raise the Philippines’ landmark arbitration case at The Hague to his cancellation of major joint military exercises with America, namely the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training Exercise (Carat) and U.S.-Philippine Amphibious Landing Exercise (PHIBLEX).
Duterte also barred Americans from using Philippine bases for conducting Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea. The increasingly cozy relations between the Filipino president and Beijing, however, have raised alarm bells among Filipino defense officials. Shortly after the visit of the two high-level Chinese officials to the Philippines, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana (a former general and diplomatic attaché at Washington, D.C.) openly accused China of conducting suspicious activities in the Benham Rise, part of the Philippines’ extended continental shelf in the Western Pacific.
He suggested that China may have conducted oceanographic research – canvassing seabed resources and assessing topographical conditions for potential deployment of submarines – without the permission of the Philippines, which has exclusive jurisdiction and sovereign rights over the area. Interestingly, Lorenzana’s accusations concerned China’s alleged activities in late-2016, not at the in recent months.
Duterte, who seemed completely unaware of even the location of Benham Rise, tried to downplay the situation by claiming that he gave China the permission to conduct Marine Scientific Research (MSR) in the area. But both his defense and foreign secretaries denied Duterte's claim. Amid growing public uproar, the Filipino president stepped up naval patrols, considered the establishment of a permanent structure, and proposed renaming the Benham Rise to ‘Philippine Ridge.’
Duterte faced an even more concerted pushback when, days later, he nonchalantly suggested the Philippines “cannot stop China” from building structures on the Scarborough Shoal, a Manila-claimed land feature that lies just above 100 nautical miles from nearest Philippine coastline.
In response, leading magistrates and legislators explicitly cautioned the president against any statement, which could undermine Philippine claim over the shoal, while an opposition legislator filed an impeachment complaint against Duterte, accusing him of violating Philippine constituting by abandoning the country’s territorial claim. Eager to refurbish his patriotic credentials, and keep the growing chorus of criticism at bay, Duterte shifted gears, calling upon the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to occupy and fortify land features claimed by the Philippines in the hotly contested Spratly chain of islands.
The instruction was music to the ear of defense officials, who are deeply worried about China’s sprawling network of airstrips and military facilities in the area. With characteristic chutzpah, Duterte also promised to personally plant the Philippine flag in Thitu Island, which hosts a four-decade-old airstrip, a large Filipino community with its own mayor, and a military detachment. Though he later retracted this promise, Duterte immediately dispatched his defense secretary, chief of staff and other generals to the disputed island in a show of force to assert Philippine sovereignty.
The AFP is currently considering expanding and refurbishing the airstrip, upgrade civilian and military facilities, and transform Thitu and other Philippine-occupied land features in the area into a potential tourist hub. This way, the Philippines hopes to catch up with other claimant states, who have been engaged in similar activities in recent years. It goes without saying that Duterte, a highly popular and decisive leader, is still the chief architect of Philippine foreign policy. And he seems determined to find a modus vivendi with China in the South China Sea.
Yet, Duterte deeply respects the military and openly admits that he can’t fully ignore the views of his generals and defense officials, many of whom deeply distrust China and have spent decades benefiting from American weapons, training, intelligence and logistical support. This is precisely why Duterte has spent considerable time courting the military, which has played a decisive role in Philippine politics in recent decades. At this juncture, what is clear is that Duterte can’t singlehandedly dictate Philippine foreign policy, particularly towards China and the South China Sea.