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Understanding President Duterte’s ‘Independent Foreign Policy’

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.

Ambassador Sta. Romana noted that the larger context of Philippine foreign policy is the emerging power shift in the Asia-Pacific region. “[W]hat we are seeing right now,” Sta. Romana argued, “is the rise of a power in Asia and we are seeing the decline of the dominant power that used to dominate the region since the end of World War II.” Having lived and worked in Beijing for many years as a journalist, Sta. Romana witnessed China’s transformation from poor country into a “major regional power.” But as China acquires economic and military prowess, its neighbors have felt Beijing’s rise as it seeks to expand power and influence in the region, particularly in the SCS.

It is in this strategic milieu that Sta. Romana identified the three major tenets of President Duterte’s independent foreign policy. First, in an apparent reference to one of the President’s speeches during his state visit to China, the “separat[ion] [of Philippine] foreign policy from the US.” Sta. Romana pointed out that it “does not mean that we totally cut off from the US.” Rather, it means lessening Manila’s dependence on Washington while maintaining “historic alliance” with America. Second, the “improvement of relations with China.” Emphasizing that this does not mean that the Philippines should shift to an alliance with China, the Ambassador argued that strengthening ties with Beijing would focus on economic cooperation while exploring ways of lowering tensions over the two countries’ maritime disputes. Lastly, “the improvement of relations with non-traditional partners,” including Russia, Japan, and India, while striving to “maintain the centrality of ASEAN.”

Duterte’s foreign policy is forged against the backdrop of a complex international environment where unambiguous alignment or identification with one power is a luxury which most states can no longer afford. In an era of major power rivalry, the strategic objective of an independent foreign policy, Ambassador Sta. Romana stressed, is finding a “geopolitical sweet spot”—i.e. “a middle ground between the US and China so that we can maximize our national interests.”

From a broader perspective, it is apparent that the Duterte government appears to be pursuing a hedging strategy. Like most Southeast Asian nations since the end of the Cold War, the Philippines adopted hedging as the central blueprint by its chief foreign policy architects beginning with President Fidel V. Ramos. The academic Cheng-Chwee Kuik defined hedging as “an insurance-seeking behavior under high-stakes and high-uncertainty situations, where a sovereign actor pursues a bundle of opposite and deliberately ambiguous policies vis-à-vis competing powers to prepare a fallback position should circumstances change.” The objective of this approach is to “acquire as many returns from different powers as possible…while simultaneously seeking to offset longer-term risks…." Largely abandoned by the previous Benigno Aquino government, hedging now appears to guide the foreign policy of the present administration, especially in the South China Sea (SCS).

Mindful of the immense power disparity between China and the Philippines, Sta. Romana stressed that the key to lowering tensions in the SCS is not the use of "mega phone diplomacy." Rather, calming down tensions is accomplished using "bilateral quiet diplomacy." Because of the complex nature of the SCS dispute, Sta, Romana argued that the Philippines must be "realistic that some things need time to solve." Thus, the goal is not to immediately solve but to manage the situation in order to prevent incidents that may spiral into a major crisis. To achieve this end, the contentious geopolitical issues must be "de-couple[d]" from non-contentious areas such as economic cooperation and people-to-people ties.

Under President Aquino, the SCS issue stirred a sense of nationalism among Filipinos. Thus, the more conciliatory approach of the Duterte administration, according to Sta. Romana, have led some to believe that the current government is "appeasing China." This perception was bolstered because, as Manila repairs Philippine-China relations, President Duterte has issued strong statements against the US, which were described by Washington as “inconsistent with friendship and alliance.” Ambassador Sta. Romana called such perception as a "profound misunderstanding."

Indeed, the Duterte government has not dismantled the legal foundations of the Philippine-US alliance: the Mutual Defense Treaty and the Visiting Forces Agreement. In fact, notwithstanding the President's statements to the contrary, the Balikatan Exercises will proceed, although with some modifications. More importantly, despite Duterte’s announcement that he intends to expel foreign troops in the Philippines within two years, Malacañang authorized the construction of facilities under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which, among others, would allow increased rotational presence of US forces in the country. Alongside the military modernization program of the government, maintaining the Manila-Washington alliance is the Philippines's attempt to offset long-term risks—a major objective of hedging.

Arguably, the third plank of the independent foreign policy is part of this objective of offsetting risks. Meeting his Japanese counterpart thrice in less than a year, Duterte has sent an unmistakable signal that he intends to further enhance the strategic partnership between Manila and Tokyo. Aside from receiving assistance from Japan in improving the Philippines' maritime capabilities, Duterte said that he is open to joint patrols and exercises in the SCS with Tokyo. In addition, Duterte's overtures to Moscow could be seen as part of broader attempt in diversifying security relationships. Moreover, as the current chair of ASEAN, the Philippines has supported multilateral efforts in negotiating a binding Code of Conduct (COC) in the SCS between China and ASEAN. With respect to China, Sta. Romana argued, “you have to combine engagement with deterrence."

Moving forward, Ambassador Sta. Romana admitted: "Forging an independent foreign policy will not be an easy task." Indeed, implementing such a foreign policy—anchored on a hedging approach—requires the necessary skill and foresight in balancing competing domestic and foreign interests in an unpredictable regional security environment.

Mico A. Galang is a researcher at the National Defense College of the Philippines (NDCP). The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the official position of NDCP.

This article is based on the author’s piece earlier published by The Diplomat .