One of the most common misconceptions about the Philippines is that one man alone decides the country’s foreign policy. Since his ascent to the presidency last year, Rodrigo Duterte has sought to revamp the Philippines’ external relations with sound and fury. Vowing an “independent” foreign policy, which “will not be dependent on the United States,” Duterte has tried to recast Manila’s relations with foreign powers, particularly Washington and Beijing.
Colorful, audacious, and highly unorthodox, Duterte has captured the attention of the world like no other Filipino president. He is often portrayed as a larger-than-life character, an unhinged demagogue with an unshakable hold over the Philippine political system. A more nuanced analysis, however, reveals a more fluid and indeterminate picture, where varying factions with diametrically-opposed strategic mindsets jostle over the formulation of the country’s foreign policy.
While Duterte is primarily interested in reviving economic ties with China, particularly in the realm of large-scale infrastructure investments, the Philippine security establishment—composed of veteran generals, diplomats, and political figures with more orthodox views—continues to view Beijing with deep suspicion. At the same time, Duterte seeks to recalibrate the Philippines’ military alliance with America, while his generals hope to maintain full-spectrum security cooperation with Washington.
Unfollow the Leader
Observers often attribute contradictory statements from the Duterte administration to the natural byproduct of having such a notoriously mercurial character as commander-in-chief. What this conventional strand of analysis misses is the fact that Duterte and his generals are in a constant low-intensity struggle over shaping the Philippines’ policies on sensitive territorial and strategic issues.
One of the most explicit manifestations of the highly fluid nature of Philippine foreign policy, and the ferocity of the internal debates, is the recent back-and-forth between Duterte and top defense and diplomatic officials over relations with China. Barely two months after Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s high-profile visit to the Philippines, where he offered a multi-billion-dollar aid and investment package, Beijing doubled-down on its economic charm offensive.
After offering a $200 million aid package, Beijing deployed two senior officials, Commerce Minister Zhong Shan and Vice Premier Wang Yang, to court the Philippines’ goodwill by offering multiple large-scale infrastructure investment deals, including on Duterte’s home island of Mindanao. Overwhelmed by China’s generous pledges, Duterte, with uncharacteristic sentimentality, personally thanked Chinese president Xi Jinping and Beijing for “loving [the Philippines] and helping [his country] survive the rigors of this life.”
Almost immediately after, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana sounded the alarm in Manila over suspicious Chinese activities in the Benham Rise, part of the Philippine extended continental shelf in the Pacific, despite the fact that these activities had occurred months earlier. Philippine defense officials raised the possibility that China may have been engaged in illegal oceanographic research to canvass seabed resources and assess the prospects of stationing submarines in the area, which largely falls under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Philippines.
Lorenzana’s surprising announcement immediately provoked a nationwide uproar, with leading magistrates, political figures and experts calling upon Duterte to take a tougher stance on China’s maritime assertiveness. Both defense and foreign secretaries openly contradicted Duterte’s claim that he gave China permission to conduct oceanographic research in the Benham Rise. Lorenzana announced that he properly “briefed” the president on the location of Benham Rise, after a response Duterte gave to a journalist seemed to indicate he had confused it with disputed features in the South China Sea. Eventually, Duterte dispatched the Philippine Navy to reassert Manila’s jurisdiction over the area.
A few days later, Duterte faced a similar outcry, when—in response to news that China might build an environmental monitoring station on Scarborough Shoal—he declared that the Philippines “cannot stop China from doing this thing.” Experts openly warned Duterte of impeachment risks if he did not adopt a tougher stance, while leading political figures cautioned the president against making defeatist statements that might undermine the Philippines’ claim over Scarborough Shoal. One opposition legislator went so far as formally filing an impeachment complaint against the president, accusing Duterte of undermining the country’s national interest.
Reversion to the Mean
Before the recent uproar, Secretary Lorenzana had warned that any Chinese construction activity on the shoal would be “very, very disturbing” and utterly “unacceptable”, also highlighting the key role the United States played in preventing earlier Chinese attempts at reclaiming the shoal. Philippine officials had also warned that this would be a “game-changer,” which would undermine improving ties with Beijing. Finally, amid considerable domestic backlash, Duterte reported that China had reassured him it would not conduct any reclamation or construction activity on the hotly-contested shoal. With characteristic chutzpah, Duterte promised to personally plant the Philippine flag on Thitu Island in the Spratlys, which is currently under Manila’s administrative control, and ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines to assert the country’s sovereignty in the area by increasing troop presence and facilities on Philippine-occupied land features.
Though one can’t dismiss the possibility that there is more hot air than actual policy in Duterte’s latest move, it is likely that Manila will, at the very least, push ahead with refurbishing its decrepit runway and military facilities on Thitu island, which hosts a large Filipino community and its own mayor. What is clear is that the Filipino president is scrambling to refurbish his patriotic credentials and calm anxieties among defense officials, who remain deeply worried about China’s sprawling network of airstrips and military bases across the South China Sea.
The trajectory of the country’s foreign policy, however, will be shaped not only by the dynamic internal debate within the Philippine state apparatus, but also by external powers’ approach to the Duterte administration and the increasingly combustible South China Sea disputes. Since the Philippines is the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for 2017, the stakes for the region and relevant powers such as China, Japan, and America are even higher. It is therefore crucial for Washington, Tokyo, and other traditional allies to engage, reassure and assist the Philippines, as the country debates its best course of action in the South China Sea and toward China.