President Duterte had been criticized for appearing soft in defending Philippine national interests in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), especially in the face of his decision to expand cooperation with a fellow disputant and potential external security threat. Such criticism largely rests on two key assumptions: 1) that asserting the country’s landmark victory in the 2016 arbitration decision is the best way to defend the country’s WPS interests and canvassing regional and international support is the best way to pressure China into compliance and; 2) maintaining robust or even deepening security relations with the US is the best deterrence against Chinese expansionism in the tightly contested strategic and resource-rich sea..
Duterte’s misgivings about the two aforementioned assumptions can be attributed to the following observations: 1) that other claimant states, notably Malaysia, and even Vietnam and Indonesia (China’s excessive nine dash line claim overlaps with Indonesia’s Natuna Islands’ exclusive economic zone) were able to manage their disputes with China through diplomacy without resorting to arbitration or other third party legal approaches; 2) China’s rise as a regional and global development partner and provider of economic goods will make such international pressure to compel China to submit unlikely to prosper and 3) that South China Sea (SCS) does not appear high in US foreign policy and that US security commitment to regional allies may waver or become unreliable under the Trump Administration.
Close to marking its first year in office, the Duterte administration has turned around the country’s relations with China in a number of ways. Departing from the previous government’s strong opposition to China’s expansive claims and assertive actions in the South China Sea, Duterte has downplayed the territorial and maritime disputes in favor of pursuing close economic and political ties with China.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte welcomed by Chinese President Xi Jinping during Leader's Roundtable Summit of the Belt and Road Forum on International Cooperation. Source: Rappler
Image taken from The Philippine Star
In November last year, Donald Trump won the United States’ Presidential elections, consequently kickstarting a new US foreign policy. During his campaign, Trump advocated a domestic-focused America and a reduced global role - threatening to move away from traditional allies, pull away from defense treaties, and withdraw from trade negotiations and partnerships.
Although critics often point to the apparent discrepancies and unpredictability in Philippine foreign policy as expressed by its chief architect, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, several emerging consistencies can be gathered. In the same vein as other countries that opted not to spell out the specifics of their foreign policy strategy, especially on critical and sensitive issues, in order to have ample room for maneuver and negotiation, these incipient consistencies have yet to be formally articulated in a coherent form, more so applied in reference to a certain foreign policy priority. Although not definitive, an appreciation of some of these nascent consistencies can give one a better outlook of the continuously evolving Philippine diplomacy. Furthermore, beyond his infamous rhetoric which surely played a lot in getting him Times’ 2017 Most Influential Person Award, Duterte’s actions, by and large, resonate as regional responses to the brewing US-China tussle.
Six months after Rodrigo Duterte brought home $24 billion in pledges from China, the Philippines seems to be speeding up the implementation of the 13 bilateral agreements signed during his state visit, as these will aid the administration’s goal for the country to enter into a golden age of infrastructure.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte met with the top executives from Bank of China on April 8, 2017.
Even during his candidacy for president, Duterte had been clear on his preference for friendly relations with China. In one gathering where he was invited to speak, he vowed to ask the country to help the Philippines build railways and set aside differences for the meantime. Indeed, once he was seated in office, the two neighboring states reopened bilateral talks—commencing with Duterte’s state visit in October last year. High-level meetings followed the visit to iron out implementation details of the agreements.
Photo from Philippine Presidential Communications Operations Office
Article II, section VII of the 1987 Philippine Constitution provides: “The State shall pursue an independent foreign policy. In its relations with other states, the paramount consideration shall be national sovereignty, territorial integrity, national interest, and the right to self-determination.” In practice, successive Philippine presidents rarely labeled Philippine foreign policy as “independent,” albeit occasionally mentioning the term as part of their rhetoric.
In a stark departure from his predecessors, President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly declared that his administration “will pursue an independent foreign policy.” As to what an “independent foreign policy” means became the subject of various discussions. For their part, senior government officials have provided rather broad principles as to how such a policy would take shape. However, in a televised interview last 3 April 2017, the new Philippine top diplomat to China, Ambassador Jose Santiago “Chito” Sta. Romana, provided a more detailed account of the elements of Duterte’s independent foreign policy and how it would figure in the broader strategic environment. It is thus far the most thorough explanation of an independent foreign policy to come from a Duterte administration official.
Early in his term as Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte already made clear his penchant for an independent foreign policy. Parenthetically, part of this foreign policy thrust is the desire to have a soft landing in managing differences with China and the strategic recognition of China’s growing geoeconomic profile. This was manifest when Duterte quickly appointed a special envoy to China and made Beijing his first official state visit destination in October of last year. In his visit, Duterte announced that the “spring time” has come about in Sino-Philippine relations.
Since then, there have been three significant positive achievements of both leaderships: the South China Sea (SCS) tensions have de-escalated, the overall bilateral relations have been normalized, and China has become more involved in Philippine domestic and socio-economic agenda. In fact, Duterte’s state visit saw commercial, corporate, public, and people-to-people diplomacy in full swing.
The assumption of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States of America creates many new uncertainties for U.S. foreign policy, causing trepidation in many countries in the Asian region. Lack of knowledge in international relations and experience in statecraft by any American leader is a matter of concern for America's friends and foes alike, but to have someone now standing at the helm who has challenged U.S. foreign policy orthodoxies as much as the new president did while on the campaign trail, has many foreign leaders, economic and security planners, and analysts sitting on the edge of their seats. The fact that the previous administration is seen to have presided over its own foreign policy failures does not absolve the new one of responsibility; those failures will rather weigh heavily on its shoulders.
How does one “make America great again,” as promised by the Trump campaign slogan? Indeed, America must be made great again for Americans, before it can be great again for the world. Considering how some of the country's core institutions that used to underpin democracy and prosperity are in such poor condition, one may have to look further and deeper for where new hope may spring.
Photo from Forbes.com
Japan and China are two of the Philippines’ most important neighbors and economic partners. Japan is the country’s biggest trade partner, investor and donor and the only country with which Philippines has an existing bilateral free trade agreement. Being both archipelagoes with long coastlines and with maritime and territorial disputes with neighbors, notably with China, Philippines and Japan share some common maritime security interests and challenges. China, on the other hand, is the country’s second biggest trade partner and a major potential investor in Philippine infrastructure, industry and agriculture. Philippines and China share overlapping claims in the contested South China Sea (SCS) making it imperative to develop appropriate dispute management mechanisms to prevent this issue from undermining bilateral ties, as well as contributing to regional instability. No wonder that outside ASEAN capitals, Beijing and Tokyo figured prominently in the first foreign state visits of President Rodrigo Duterte.
Because of the Philippines’ strategic location, geopolitical importance and burgeoning economy, it is understandable for external powers to try to obtain the Philippines’ favor. The recent state visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Manila with a stop in Duterte’s hometown of Davao, for instance, demonstrates Japan’s determination to keep its longstanding influence in the country, amidst warming Philippines-China relations and uncertainties in Philippines-US ties. However, instead of choosing between rivals Japan and China, the Philippines should realize that maintaining good relations with these two powers is important for the country’s economy and security. Pursuit of national interests through an independent foreign policy requires staying away from great power competition to avoid entanglement. It also requires that the Philippines avoids choosing one over the other for fear of foregoing the benefits of engaging both.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Shared values and resolve to defend territorial integrity and maritime rights had long undergirded Philippine foreign policy which may help explain longstanding ties with traditional allies US and Japan. Hence, the country’s warming relations with China and Russia was considered astonishing, if not a game changer. The country does not share affinity in political ideals with these two and, in the case of China, it even has unresolved disputes over the West Philippine Sea (WPS). One may think that the country is pivoting away from its traditional allies into the fold of incompatible partners for uncertain ends or that one of Asia’s pioneer liberal democracies is anxiously drifting away from its identity. However, despite the rhetoric, a careful examination will reveal that the new Philippine government’s move is driven more by conflict avoidance and economic considerations rather than attempts to redefine the country’s politics and international alignment though President Duterte supports federalism and a more independent foreign policy. Potential change in US government disposition towards Russia under the Trump Presidency may have also played a part.