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Foreign Policy

Duterte’s Dance with Beijing: Philippines’ Dual China Policy

Jun 06, 2019

With President Rodrigo Duterte’s allies dominating the midterm elections (May 13), the Filipino leader is now in a unique position to alter his country’s politics for generations to come. Critics worry that the controversial leader, who has overseen a brutal drug war that has claimed thousands of lives, now has a carte blanche to push his authoritarian brand of governance to its logical extreme. 

In possession of a supermajority in both houses of the Philippine Congress, Duterte can forge ahead with establishing an entirely new constitution that strengthens presidential powers and weakens institutional checks and balances on his rule. The unprecedented concentration of power in Duterte’s hands, however, also has foreign policy implications. 

The Filipino leader could be emboldened to consummate his pivot to China policy, which faced fierce criticism by the democratic opposition. The latter’s decimation in the latest elections, with the opposition failing to secure even a single seat in the crucial senate race, paves the way for a more overt strategic alignment with Beijing. 

The Philippine defense establishment, however, has quietly expanded strategic cooperation with the United States. The upshot is a dualistic China policy: the president and his coterie pursuing rapprochement with Beijing, while the Philippine military patiently and stubbornly deepening ties with traditional allies to hedge against China’s maritime assertiveness. 

The China Question 

Like never before in Philippine history, foreign policy was a major electoral issue this year. The liberal opposition expressly focused on Dutetre’s strategic coziness with China amid festering disputes in the South China Sea. 

Since January this year, hundreds of Chinese para-military forces have surrounded Philippine-held islands in the Spratlys, provoking massive political backlash and nationwide protests across the Philippines. 

China’s continuous harassment of Filipino fishermen as well as mass harvesting of giant clams from the Philippine claimed Scarborough Shoal only exacerbated an already tense situation. 

The opposition sought to capitalize on public outrage, and called for a tougher stance against China, to paint the administration bets as Chinese puppets. Duterte and his senatorial candidates were repeatedly disparaged as “team China”, as the elections took a decidedly foreign policy dimension. 

During a particularly heated senatorial debate in April, Duterte’s chief ally and former police chief Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa lashed out at the critics: “You might think you’re the only ones patriotic, not Duterte, not us. Well I must tell you frankly, whoever wants to join me, I will give you guns and bullets, let us attack it. Are you brave? Let’s attack China.” 

The spirited response by Duterte’s allies came amid a barrage of criticism levied against the Philippine government for supposedly soft-pedaling on the South China Sea disputes. Even prominent Filipino celebrities joined the fray, engaging in social media spats with senior government officials, particularly the feisty Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. 

The Filipino president, however, held his ground. During his April visit to Beijing for the second Belt and Road Forum, he met top Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping and Premiere Li Keqiang. But instead of confronting Beijing on the South China Sea disputes, Duterte consciously eschewed the issue in favor of expanded economic relations. 

Pleased with his strategic acquiesce, China also pledged 1 billion renminbi ($148 million) in official development assistance as well as a $12 billion of investment package expected to generate more than 12 thousand jobs. 

The Military Hedges 

In a country where few (6 percent) identify foreign policy as an urgent issue, a growing number of Filipinos (67 percent) welcoming expanded economic ties with China and Duterte’s stance carried the day. The opposition, which partly banked on age-old anti-China sentiments, suffered its greatest electoral defeat in decades. Now, Duterte’s allies can push for even stronger economic and strategic relations with China in the coming years. 

Were he to pull of a constitutional change, the Filipino president could even perpetuate himself or his allies in power for years to come. One of the biggest winners would be China, which dreads the possibility of an electoral shock upending foreign policy of a friendly regime as we have seen in places such as Malaysia and Sri Lanka in recent years. 

Meanwhile, the Philippine defense establishment stepped up its defense ties with the U.S. and traditional allies. This year saw 20 more joint military exercises between the Philippines and US, which are expected to upgrade their mutual defense treaty and conduct even more robust war games in the years to come. 

This month saw the Philippine Navy, which is undergoing rapid modernization, conducting its first-ever quadrilateral naval exercises with the U.S., India and Japan in the South China Sea. 

While The head of the Philippine Navy’s delegation celebrated the exercise, stating the “group sail showed the active participation of the Philippine Navy as it strengthens its relationships with allies and partners in the Asia Pacific region” and how this “gives us another opportunity to learn from like-minded navies.” 

Despite vehement opposition from China, the defense establishment has also pushed ahead for the first time since the 1970s with upgrading Philippine facilities in the Spratly chain of islands. 

They have also quietly relished Washington’s expanded Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) against China, including in the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal, which lies just over 100 nautical miles from Subic and Clark bases, the site of the largest American overseas bases in the past decades. 

While unable to alter Duterte’s diplomatic strategy towards China, the influential and largely autonomous Philippine defense establishment, which has been at the receiving end of the president’s charm offensive, is conducting a parallel China policy of its own. The upshot is a dualistic foreign policy, combining both engagement (led by Duterte) and deterrence (led by the military). 

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