Originally Published 2017-02-09 05:57:02 Published on Feb 09, 2017
Duterte’s geopolitical game-play

The ebbs and flows of Philippine policy in the South China Sea marks the confluence of (perceived and objective) shifts in the domestic political calculations of the ruling elite faction, which dominates foreign policy decision-making, and the regional security environment, which is broadly shaped by great powers, namely the United States and China.

In open, democratic societies like the Philippines, which have an in-built system of checks and balances, there is obviously less insulation for the foreign policy decision-making process from public scrutiny. Thus, domestic political dynamics tend to exert even greater pressure on foreign policy formulation. In the Philippines, interference of external powers, legislative oversight and judicial review by co-equal branches of the government, and lobbying by influential business groups constantly shape and constrain the executive’s constitutional prerogative in shaping foreign policy. Recent historical evidence also shows that changes in the administrations tend to be accompanied by a perceptible shift in approaches to key foreign policy challenges, particularly the South China Sea disputes.

This has been most prominent in the 21st century under the past three administrations, from President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (2001-2010) and Benigno Aquino III (2010-2016) to Rodrigo Duterte (2016-2022). While the Arroyo administration broadly adopted an equilateral balancing strategy towards both powers and sought a pragmatic accommodation with China in the South China Sea, the Aquino administration largely adopted a counter-balancing strategy, soliciting maximum security assistance from America and other longstanding strategic partners like Japan to check China’s ambitions in the South China Sea.

The current president, Duterte, however, has raised the specter of bandwagoning with China and abandoning the Philippines’ long-standing alliance with America. "I will be chartering a course on its own and will not be dependent on the United States," the Philippines’ tough-talking leader declared immediately after securing electoral victory in May 2016, a particularly polarising and vicious contest that mirrored the American presidential elections as well as the British referendum on ending its European Union membership.

The Philippines has never had any president like Duterte, the first self-described ‘socialist’ as well as Mindanaoan top leader in the country’s history. And like none of the Southeast Asian nation’s presidents, he has lashed out at America and its supposed ‘interference’ with particular ideological conviction and rhetorical venom, including insults against American Ambassador Philip Goldberg and President Barack Obama.<1>

During the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) summit in Vientiane, Laos, he reminded America of its mass atrocities in the early-20th century and a radical shift in Philippine foreign policy by declaring:  “I am ready to not really break ties but we will open alliances with China and . . . Medvedev ,” the firebrand president exclaimed. “I will open up the Philippines for them to do business, alliances of trade and commerce.”<2> He also became the first Filipino leader to choose Beijing for his first major state visit, where he, to the consternation of many Filipinos and government officials, declared “separation” from America by offering to re-align his country’s foreign policy with Beijing’s “ideological flow”.<3>

Not to mention, at some point, Duterte stretched the limits of his bolt-from-the-blue rhetoric by even threatening to take the Philippines out of the United Nations over disagreements vis-à-vis human rights issues. On the surface, this represents nothing short of a revolution in Philippine foreign policy. And yet his approach revealed a more nuanced and less dramatic picture of justifiable strategic recalibration built on amateurish tactics and often-inappropriate rhetoric.

Understanding Philippine policy in the South China Sea cannot be confined to analysing domestic political shifts alone. More often than not, external factors have proven more decisive in shaping the mid-sized country’s foreign policy. After all, small powers are often at the mercy of greater forces, which shape the international environment. For instance, back in 2004, the Arroyo administration was in a strong position to improve ties with Beijing, precisely because the latter maintained a sober and tempered policy in the South China Sea. This was not the case from 2010 onwards, when China progressively stepped up its maritime assertiveness in adjacent waters, both in the East and South China Seas. More importantly, the United States, the world’s leading power, also experienced a shift in its strategic focus and resolve throughout this period. In short, the Philippines has operated in and has had to cope with a fluid external environment, which was primarily shaped by external powers.

Nevertheless, it is clear that strong-willed leaders such as Duterte can—and often do–exercise a surprising level of agency in re-shaping their respective country’s foreign policy, for better or worse. At this point, what is clear is that the Philippines is, at the very least, shifting to an equi-balancing strategy, whereby Manila seeks to maintain friendly relations with both America and China, but with certain game-changing modifications. Under an emerging ‘grand bargain’, the Philippines will maintain the fundamentals of bilateral security relations with America, but downgrade military cooperation in the South China Sea. In exchange, the Duterte administration expects China to step up its development aid and, more importantly, make concessions in the disputed waters, particularly over Filipino fishermen’s access to the bitterly disputed Scarborough Shoal. But nothing is set in stone. The trajectory of Philippine relations with both powers will depend on Duterte’s domestic political standing, relations with the incoming administration of Donald Trump, and the prospects of joint development schemes with China in the South China Sea.

Strategic Dependence

For much of the 20th century, Manila outsourced its external security requirements to Washington, which, in exchange, gained full-spectrum access to Philippine civilian and military facilities. In effect, the Philippines, a formally sovereign nation, became America’s protectorate. This patron-client strategic relationship was undergirded by a series of foundational agreements, particularly the US-Philippines Military Assistance Pact (1947), the Military Bases Agreement (1947), and the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) of 1951, which transformed America into the de facto guarantor of the Philippines’ survival against external aggression.<4>

The end of Cold War, however, represented a shock to the bilateral relations. Absent a common enemy, namely the Soviet Union, America began to reconsider its exorbitant military deployments overseas, while the Philippines agitated for actual independence. The upshot was the exit of American bases in 1992, which came amidst the euphoria of economic globalisation in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Communist bloc. It did not take long, however, before Manila experienced a rude awakening, specifically when China extended its creeping occupation of contested land features in the South China Sea into the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in 1994.

The following year, the two neighbours almost came to blows, as the Ramos administration (1992-1998) struggled to respond to the shock of what it saw as Chinese territorial usurpation. In response, Manila adopted a three-pronged approach. First, seeking the return of American military presence in the region under a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which coincided with the Clinton administration’s growing anxieties over a rising China in light of the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis. Second, Manila stepped up its military buildup under the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Modernization Act.<5> The aim was to develop at least a credible minimum defence posture, absent permanent American bases in the Philippines that served as a strong deterrence in the past. Finally, the Ramos administration adopted a pro-active multilateral diplomacy, particularly towards the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which culminated in the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.<6>

The early years of the Arroyo administration were dominated by the Bush administration’s ‘Global War on Terror’, which was focused on both the Middle East and Southeast Asian regions. But by the mid-2000s, the Philippines began to step up its relations with China, which, under a charm offensive strategy, adopted a policy of moderation and self-restraint in the South China Sea. Arroyo’s September 2004 state visit to Beijing proved decisive, as it heralded a sudden uptick in bilateral security and economic cooperation. The same year, the two sides signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Defense Cooperation, with China offering $1.2 million in military assistance to the Philippines.<7> The two sides also took concrete steps to resolve their disputes in the South China Sea.

Under the Joint Maritime Seismic Undertaking (2005-2008), the two neighbours, together with Vietnam, explored a joint exploration scheme in specific areas of overlapping claims in the Spratlys. The hope was that this would serve as a concrete confidence-building measure as a prelude to more high-stakes joint development scheme in the South China Sea. In a characteristic exercise of its statecraft, China also offered massive infrastructure deals, particularly the NBN-ZTE telecommunications and the North Rail transpiration projects, to upgrade the Philippines’ lackadaisical economy. Over the next few years, bilateral trade boomed, increasing from $17.6 billion in 2005 to $23.4 in 2006 and $30.6 billion in 2007.<8>

But this ‘golden age’ of bilateral relations was short-lived, as corruption scandals undermined the Arroyo administration’s major investments deals with China and the JMSU came under attack for violating the Philippine Constitution. Against this backdrop, Aquino, who ran on the platform of fighting corruption, rose to presidency. Under these trying circumstances, inevitably there were to be tensions with China, which was embroiled in various corruption scandals under the previous administration.

The bone of contention was the South China Sea, specifically after Beijing began to effectively occupy the Scarborough Shoal following a tense naval standoff in mid-2012. In response, the Aquino administration filed an arbitration case against China, accusing the Asian giant of violating the Philippines’ sovereign rights in the South China Sea. It also stepped up the Philippines’ security cooperation with the Obama administration, which began its much-touted ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy in 2011. Meanwhile, institutionalised diplomatic and bilateral state-to-state investment relations were essentially frozen.<9>

To the Aquino administration’s chagrin, China continued to tighten the noose around the Philippines, building massive artificial islands in the Spratlys, deploying a growing number of coast guard vessels and fishermen to the Scarborough Shoal, and threatening Philippine detachments in places such as the Second Thomas Shoal and Thitu Island. Bilateral tensions reached new heights when it became increasingly clear that China would suffer a huge legal setback. By 12 July 2016, an arbitral tribunal at The Hague, constituted under Article 287, Annex VII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), ruled against China’s doctrine of ‘historic rights’, deeming it incompatible with modern international law, as well as massive reclamation activities in the contested Spratlys, which inflicted huge ecological damage in the area.<10> The court also ruled that China and the Philippines had no overlapping EEZs, and that none of China’s claimed features in the area were naturally-formed ‘islands’, which could generate their own EEZ.<11>

Strategic Recalibration

Less than two weeks in office, Duterte took a dramatically different position on the arbitration issue, in particular, and the South China Sea disputes, in general.<12> The new administration immediately called for ‘sobriety and patience’ after the release of the arbitration verdict. Duterte himself made it clear, upon his inauguration as the Philippine president, that he will not flaunt any favorable arbitration verdict to taunt the Asian juggernaut.<13> Later on, before the ASEAN summit, Duterte also made it clear that he will not raise the arbitration issue at multilateral fora. In short, he forewent the option of aggressively leveraging the arbitration award to push China to the corner by mobilising international diplomatic pressure. Instead, Duterte called for essentially bilateral settlement of the disputes.

To be fair, while many were surprised by a seeming volte-face in Philippine foreign policy, Duterte has always been transparent about his position on the territorial disputes and the necessity re-open frayed communication channels with China. Unlike his predecessor, who pushed for robust pushback against Chinese maritime assertiveness through legal warfare and deeper security cooperation with America and other likeminded countries, Duterte believed that standing up to China on the issue was too risky. As if abruptly cooling down tensions with China—after an arbitration body made it clear that the Asian giant was violating Philippine sovereign rights—was not shocking enough, Duterte also spent much of his first six months in office lashing out at America and threatening total ‘separation’ from the Philippines’ sole treaty ally and former coloniser.

To understand Duterte’s emerging foreign policy, which has jolted allies and rivals as well as much of the Philippine public, one should analyse the intersection of five key elements. The first thing to keep in mind is that Duterte’s political success has been built on an ‘anti-establishment’ brand of populism, which represents a wholesale rejection of the Philippine political elite and their policies. In this sense, Duterte shares significant similarities with other successful leaders such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Donald Trump, who upended the politics of their respective countries by promising an alternative form of governance under their firm and decisive leadership.

But Duterte’s ability to overhaul the Philippines’ business-as-usual politics and position on the South China Sea would not be possible absent his domination of the state apparatus. And this brings us to the second factor, which is the ‘authoritarianisation’ of Philippine political system. Or, to be more specific, the rapid concentration of power in Dutetre’s hands as normal institutions of checks and balances fall into a state of hibernation.<14> Within two months into office, Duterte managed to score the country’s highest popularity rating (91 percent) approval rating ever, build a supermajority bloc in the Philippine Congress, and gain the full-fledged support of the law enforcement agencies and military by promising them better salaries, benefits, and equipment. His grip on the judiciary is set to strengthen too, since he will be appointing most of the justices in the coming years. As studies show, the emergence of such personalistic administrations is usually accompanied by wild swings in foreign policy.<15>

The third factor is the lack of clear American commitment to the Philippines in the South China Sea. Year after year, the Obama administration has refused to clarify whether it would come to the Philippines’ rescue in an event of conflict with China in the South China Sea.<16> This is precisely why Duterte, on multiple occasions, openly questioned whether America is a reliable ally or not. In contrast, and this is the fourth element, China has made it clear that it is willing to offer the Philippines both maritime and economic concessions in exchange for Manila setting aside the arbitration issue and, if possible, downgrading ties with America.<17> Duterte is considering a joint development agreement with China in the Scarborough Shoal and eying billions of dollars of infrastructure investments, particularly in his home island of Mindanao, which is in desperate need of development.<18>

The Asian powerhouse also made the sticks clear: The Philippines risks military confrontation, diplomatic isolation, and significant foregone investment opportunities if it refuses to change gear in the South China Sea. In fact, Duterte has met the Chinese ambassador in Manila more than any other diplomat in recent months. In disputed areas, China could make life hard for the Philippines by imposing an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), pushing ahead with establishment of military facilities on the Scarborough Shoal, and stepping up military and para-military deployments into Philippine waters. Indeed, shortly after the arbitration award was announced, China deployed fight jets and a long-range bomber to the Scarborough and increased the number of military and quasi-civilian vessels in the area.<19>

Lastly, it is important to take into account Duterte’s “personalisation” of foreign policy. Not only has he strengthened his grip on the state apparatus, but he has also injected more of his own personal emotions into the policy-making process as well as diplomatic pronouncements. His tirades against America, for instance, are largely driven by his personal antipathy towards America, which stretch back to his years as mayor of Davao.<20> These historical wounds were rekindled when America began to criticise Duterte’s signature policy, the campaign against drugs, in his first month in office. Meanwhile, China has consistently expressed its support for Duterte’s war on drugs and has offered to help in terms of logistics, equipment, criminal investigations, and establishment of rehabilitation centers. America’s vocal criticism of Duterte eventually prompted him to direct foul language against no less than America’s top leaders, including Obama.<21>

Prospects and Challenges

To be fair, there is a significant gap between Duterte’s often-hyperbolic rhetoric, on one hand, and more subdued policy, on the other. As of this writing, security agreements with America continue to be respected. Deployment of American Special Forces to Mindanao has also gone per routine. There has been not ‘separation’ or rupture in bilateral security relations, so far. But it is important to note the Duterte’s threats are not just pure bluster. As a part of an emerging ‘grand bargain’, the Duterte administration is dispensing with major bilateral military exercises with the United States, which were aimed at enhancing interoperability in an event of joint military operations against China in the South China Sea, Duterte has also made it clear that American access to Philippine bases will remain under strict conditions . For instance, Washington, for the meantime, cannot use Philippine bases to launch Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) against Chinese excessive maritime claims in the South China Sea. Nor will there be any joint patrols in disputed waters as previously planned.<22> In exchange, China is expected to draw down its harassment of Philippine supply lines and reconnaissance activities in the South China Sea, grant access to Filipino fishermen in the Scarborough Shoal, and pour in major investments into the Southeast Asian country.

The future of the Philippines’ policy in the South China Sea is not clear. So far, Manila and Beijing have struggled to find a common ground on the Scarborough Shoal, despite repeated talks of a joint development agreement, which could raise both political and legal controversy. It also remains to be seen whether China will actually translate its economic pledges into tangible and large-scale investments in the Philippines. If the two parties fail to find a common ground in the disputed waters in a year or two, it is highly likely that the recent strategic flirtation will lose steam, especially if Manila’s relations with America begin to recover from recent dust ups. So far, there is clear indication that Duterte looks forward to a Trump administration, which is likely to put less emphasis on human rights and democracy issues and instead focus on strategic cooperation and economic ties.

Duterte’s ability to unilaterally shape the Philippine foreign policy, particularly on sensitive issues such as the South China Sea, is also highly contingent on his popularity as well as the coherence of political opposition. Given the fluidity of Philippine politics, Duterte may find himself in a radically different political position in a year or so. And this could also reshape his foreign policy calculus. At this point in time, what is clear is that the Duterte administration, at the very least, is eager on reviving bilateral ties with China and reducing the Philippines’ century-old dependence on America. Thus, the Philippines is increasingly following in the footsteps of almost all ASEAN countries, which have adopted an equi-balancing strategy towards the two great powers.

Richard Javad Heydarian is an academic, foreign affairs columnist, media pundit and author of "Asia's New Battlefield: US, China & the Struggle for Western Pacific" (Zed, London). He had taught as a political science professor at De La Salle University and Ateneo De Manila University, and is a regular contributor to the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) and Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

This article was originally published in GP-ORF’s Line in the Waters.

<1> Richard J Heydarian, Can Ramos Break the Ice in Philippines-China Relations, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, August 16, 2016; https://amti.csis.org/can-ramos-break-ice-philippines-china-relations/

<2> Philippines' Duterte wants to 'open alliances' with Russia, China, Reuters, September 26, 2016, at http://www.reuters.com/article/us-philippines-politics-duterte-idUSKCN11W17T

<3> In China, Duterte announces split with US: 'America has lost', CNN, October 20, 2016 http://edition.cnn.com/2016/10/20/asia/china-philippines-duterte-visit/

<4> The US-Philippines Defence Alliance, Council for Foreign Relations, October 21, 2016 http://www.cfr.org/philippines/us-philippines-defense-alliance/p38101

<5> Military buildup still continuing, the Manila Standard, Oct ober 25, 2015 http://www.thestandard.com.ph/news/-main-stories/top-stories/190209/-military-buildup-still-continuing-.html

<6> Richard Heydarian, Karaoke Diplomacy: Can Ramos Restore Philippine-China Relations?, August 7, 2016 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-javad-heydarian/can-former-president-ramo_b_11382266.html

<7> Morada N, Philippine Foreign Relations after September 11 (2001-2005) in Philippine Politics and Governance: An Introduction. Eds. Morada N & Teresa Encarnaci on Tadem. Quezon City: University of the Philippines, 2016

<8>  China-Philippines trade declines 30% in 2009, ASEAN Affairs, December 1, 2010 http://www.aseanaffairs.com/philippines_news/trade/china_philippines_trade_declines_30_in_2009

<9> Stirring up the South China Sea (II): Regional Responses, Asia Report, International Crisis Group, July 24, 2012  https://d2071andvip0wj.cloudfront.net/229-stirring-up-the-south-china-sea-ii-regional-responses.pdf

<10> Tribunal rules against Beijing in South China Sea dispute, China rejects it, Hindustan Times, July 12, 2016   http://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/china-has-no-historic-rights-in-south-china-sea-hague-tribunal/story-1hPgndEGl3wBF8dTAK0KjL.html

<11> See Final Award. PCA Case No. 2013-19, Permanent Court of Arbitration, July 12, 2016  https://pca-cpa.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/175/2016/07/PH-CN-20160712-Award.pdf

<12> For a better understanding of the post-arbitration confrontational approach options see Antonio Carpio, How the Philippines Can Enforce the South China Sea Verdict, Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2016 http://www.wsj.com/articles/how-the-philippines-can-enforce-the-south-china-sea-verdict-1468774415

<13> Duterte warns against using tribunal ruling vs. China to 'taunt or flaunt', GMA News Online, July 30, 2016 http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/571930/news/nation/duterte-warns-against-using-tribunal-ruling-vs-china-to-taunt-or-flaunt

<14> Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz, How Democracies Fall Apart, Foreign Affairs, December 5, 2016 https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2016-12-05/how-democracies-fall-apart

<15> Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Erica Frantz, and Joseph Wright, The New Dictators, Foreign Affairs, September 2016 https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2016-09-26/new-dictators

<16> Jay Batongbacal, EDCA and the West Philippine Sea, Rappler, December 12, 2014 http://www.rappler.com/thought-leaders/77823-edca-west-philippine-sea-america

<17> Beijing to focus on blunting impact of South China Sea ruling, Financial Times, July 12, 2016, https://www.ft.com/content/bb8d42d6-47fa-11e6-8d68-72e9211e86ab

<18> Philippines’ ‘realistic’ Duterte to shift focus from South China Sea in dealings with Beijing, South China Morning Post, June 9, 2016  http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/1966920/philippines-realistic-duterte-shift-focus-south-china

<19> Akira Hiroyuki, Two contrasting theories about China's provocative actions, Nikki Asian Review, August 29, 2016 http://asia.nikkei.com/Politics-Economy/Policy-Politics/Two-contrasting-theories-about-China-s-provocative-actions

<20> Trefor Moss, Behind Duterte’s Break  with the U.S., a Lifetime of Resentment, Wall Street Journal, October 21, 2016  http://www.wsj.com/articles/behind-philippine-leaders-break-with-the-u-s-a-lifetime-of-resentment-1477061118

<21> Richard J Heydarian, Duterte Shakes Up Philippine Foreign Policy, Asia Unbound, Council on Foreign Relations. October 3., 2016 http://blogs.cfr.org/asia/2016/10/03/duterte-shakes-up-philippine-foreign-policy/

<22> Jim Gomez, Philippines says US on its own in South China Sea Patrols, December 8, 2016, PhilStar Global http://www.philstar.com/headlines/2016/12/08/1651525/philippines-says-us-its-own-south-china-sea-patrols

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