A crucial challenge that the new Philippine president will face after his June 30 inauguration will be whether or not to continue President Benigno Aquino’s geopolitical agenda by challenging Beijing’s expansive claims in the South China Sea. President-elect Rodrigo Duterte needs to weigh whether or not to pursue this agenda given other foreign policy concerns (e.g. economic diplomacy and protection of overseas workers) and the opportunity costs of a strained bilateral relationship with the second largest economy in the world. He must also take into account the geopolitical forces unleashed by his predecessor’s policy of challenging China’s expansive claims.

Challenging the Geopolitical Agenda?

During the presidential campaign, Duterte was critical of the Aquino administrations’ agenda in the South China Sea. He declared that he would be willing to hold bilateral talks with China over the dispute. Duterte also suggested the possibility of joint exploration of the South China Sea’s natural resources and said he would like to see China building railroads on the troubled island of Mindanao in exchange for his temporary silence on the maritime dispute. Duterte was also disparaging of the Philippine-U.S. alliance, saying he has little confidence that the United States would honor its treaty commitment to the Philippines when it comes to the South China Sea dispute.

After the election, however, the president-elect changed his tune. On Election Day, Duterte declared that if became president he would settle the territorial disputes in the South China Sea through multilateral negotiations that would include allies such as the United States, Japan, and Australia as well as claimant states. This is a reversal of his earlier position of relying on bilateral negotiations with China to resolve the territorial row. Duterte recently announced that he “will never surrender the Philippines’ sovereign right over Scarborough Shoal” after holding talks with China’s ambassador to Philippines Zhang Jianhua. He also said he did not discuss the South China dispute with the Zhang because the Philippines is still anticipating the decision of an arbitral tribunal in The Hague regarding the Philippines’ case against China. This showed a change in his previously cynical view of the case given China’s declaration that it will not accept the tribunal’s decisions. The incoming administration’s slow but sure about-face on its earlier South China Sea pronouncements was captured by incoming foreign secretary Perfecto Yasay’s recent statement “that relations with China should improve as long as China adheres to the rule of law, respects our [Philippine] territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Duterte also moderated his disparaging view of Philippine-U.S. security relations. In late May, he declared that he was in favor of continuing the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the Philippines and the United States because of the limited capabilities of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). In a press conference, he said that he does not have a problem with EDCA, specifically the use of Philippine military bases by the United States, because the Philippines “don’t have good external defense capabilities.” His only qualification to EDCA’s implementation is that U.S. forces “could not use any other place without the knowledge or until there is advice from the [Philippine] Armed Forces.”

Minding Geopolitical Forces

Some analysts maintain that President-elect Duterte has a pragmatic foreign policy agenda for the Philippines characterized by pursuing efforts to keep the country’s security relations with the United States intact while exploring economic cooperation with China. Career diplomats in the Department of Foreign Affair, however, have observed that Duterte, like other presidential candidates, simply did not have a concrete foreign policy agenda regarding specific issues like the South China Sea, which will only be developed after this new administration takes office. Whether Duterte will continue Aquino’s policy of traditional geo-politics or pursue a policy of accommodation with China, he must take into account four factors.

First, the new president must consider public opinion vis-à-vis China. Since the 2012 Scarborough Shoal stand-off, the majority of Filipinos have developed an unfavorable image of China. In the aftermath of the stand-off, most in the Philippines have followed news on the South China Sea dispute and have a great distrust of China. Another factor that the new president has to consider is the AFP’s shift from internal security to external territorial defense—a vital component of the Aquino administration’s balancing policy toward China. If the new president decides to accommodate China, he or she must stop or slow down the AFP’s shift from internal security to territorial defense, as well as reverse the bureaucratic processes that President Aquino started when he decided to challenge China. Such moves may cause discontent within the AFP.

Third, Aquino has relied on a classic balancing strategy against China by engaging other major powers for diplomatic and military support. Fortunately, the United States and Japan have accommodated Aquino’s efforts to involve them in this balancing strategy by forging security arrangements with the Philippines. Alarmed by the Chinese military’s expansion in contested waters, the United States (with the support of Japan and other allies) has shown its naval and air prowess to constraint China from establishing primacy in the region.

Finally, the new president needs to examine China’s unilateral condition for any entente with the Philippines. Foreign Minister Wang Yi, during his first visit to Manila, was very emphatic about China’s view that the Philippines is primarily responsible for the tension in the Philippine-China bilateral relationship and that “it is up to the Philippines to heal the rift over the South China Sea.” This means that the new president early in his term could possibly disregard the award (whether favorable or not for the Philippines) of the arbitral tribunal, gravitate away from its security partners (the United States and Japan), stop or slow down the AFP’s shift to territorial defense, accommodate China’s expansionist designs in the South China Sea by accepting an untested and untried method of joint development, and not expecting any concession from China in return.

Conclusion

Whether or not President-elect Duterte continues President Aquino’s policy or pursues one of accommodation, it behooves him to consider these four very important factors. If he decides to accommodate China’s expansion in the South China Sea, Duterte will do well to reflect on how Filipinos, the United States, Japan, and global community will view his potentially risky gambit to engage with an emergent and expansionist East Asian power.

About Renato Cruz de Castro

Renato Cruz De Castro is a full professor (on sabbatical leave) in the International Studies Department, De La Salle University, Manila, and holds the Charles Lui Chi Keung Professorial Chair in China Studies. He is currently the U.S.-ASEAN Fulbright Initiative Researcher from the Philippines based in the East-West Center in Washington, D.C. Professor De Castro’s research interests include Philippine-U.S. security relations, Philippine defense and foreign policies, U.S. defense and foreign policies in East Asia, and the international politics of East Asia.