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March 2017

of the
the key link between IDEAS and ACTION


Duterte’s foreign policy is telltale of how populist leaders will and often
can significantly alter the trajectory of, as well as re-conceptualize, the
underlying logic of a state’s foreign policy. The nexus between domestic
political and foreign policy decision-making has been extensively studied in
the international relations literature (Allison 1971; Moravscik 1997; Putnam
1998; Wendt 1997). The pursuit of strategic autonomy, often constrained
by great power politics, has also been a regular feature of foreign policy
formulation across Southeast Asia, beginning with fiercely independent-
minded regional states such as Indonesia, the cradle of the Non-Aligned
Movement (NAM) in the mid-20th century (Weatherbee 2005).

Duterte has demonstrated the impact of strong-willed, self-confident

and single-minded leadership on foreign policy formulation in developing
countries, where institutions are weak or fragile and the strategic culture is
more reflective of short-to-medium-term tactical calculations rather than the
pursuit of core national interests based on a long-term strategy. Yet,
the ongoing reformulation of Philippine foreign policy hasn’t taken place
within a vacuum. Instead, it marks the combination of several factors
that have facilitated this largely unexpected phenomenon.

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Rejection of Liberal Elites
Duterte’s populism has been based on a
wholesale rejection of the liberal elite class,
which supplanted the Ferdinand Marcos
regime in 1986. Since his presidential
campaign, the Filipino president hasn’t only
questioned the foundational principles of
the existing political system, namely civil
liberties and human rights, but also
the foreign policy paradigm of the
previous ruling establishment.

Similar to other strongmen populists such

as Vladimir Putin (Russia), Recep Tayyip
Erdoğan (Turkey), and, most recently,
Donald Trump (United States), Duterte
isn’t only interested in overhauling the
domestic political landscape, but also the
foreign policy alignment of his country.
In the case of Putin, Russia gradually
moved away from the pro-Western
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leanings of the Yeltsin administration.
Under Erdoğan, Turkey has diversified
its foreign relations by reaching out to
neighboring Arab countries, Iran, Russia
and China, in what has been dubbed as
a ‘neo-Ottoman’ rejection of a century-old
pro-Western foreign policy under Atatürk
and his secular heirs. As for Donald Trump,
we have so far seen signs of improved,
albeit surreptitious, relations with Russia
going hand in hand with uncertainties over
America’s commitment to its traditional
allies, particularly in Europe. Vindicated
by their electoral success, passionate
base, and high approval ratings (with
the exception of Trump), these populist
strongmen felt confident enough to
challenge strategic orthodoxies in their
respective countries’ foreign policies.

Backed by a well-organized propaganda

machine—particularly in the case of
Russia, Turkey, and increasingly in the
Philippines—these leaders have branded
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their critics as either part of the oligarchy,


March 2017 volume 10 issue 1


Consolidation of Power in
Red Star on the Horizon
the Presidency Throughout the 20th century, the Philippines
Populists such as Duterte have been able to largely relied on the American security umbrella.
swiftly consolidate power and concentrate strategic The latter enjoyed almost full-spectrum access
decision-making in the office of the presidency. to civilian and military facilities across the
strategically-located Southeast Asian nation.

US Military Commitment
There is lingering concern in the Philippines over the
precise extent of the American military commitment
to the Philippines. The Southeast Asian country
has been the biggest recipient of American Foreign
Military Financing in Southeast Asia.

on the cover
Cover page: images from and

Beijing’s Carrots and Sticks

Towards an Interdependent
Foreign Policy
about the author Beijing has provided unequivocal sets of carrots
The essence of an equilateral balancing strategy,
and sticks depending on the actions of
Richard Javad Heydarian the Duterte administration. which is commonly employed by middle-sized
nations, is to maintain cordial and fruitful
is an academic, policy adviser, and relations with all key poles of power.
columnist. His most recent book is
“Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China, and
the Struggle for Western Pacific” (Zed,
London). He is currently a resident analyst
at ABS-CBN News Channel, a columnist
for Aljazeera English, and a regular
contributor to Asia Maritime Transparency
Initiative of the Center for Strategic &
International Studies (CSIS) and Council
on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington
D.C. He has written for or been interviewed
by the world’s leading publications.
He is currently working on two books,
one on “Obama’s Asia policy” and the
other on “Duterte and Rise of Asian
populism” (Palgrave, Macmillan).


as elitists that are out of touch, and/or as unpatriotic stooges
of outside powers. The tactic of intimidating critics through
information warfare has been deployed effectively on
Erdoğan’s and Putin’s watch, and there are concerns that
the same could happen in the case of the Philippines
and the United States if—though highly unlikely—
the independent press is eased out of the media landscape.

The strength of their populism is anchored on the successful

optimization of simmering discontent among voters
vis-à-vis rising inequality and persistent rates of poverty
and unemployment. These structural elements have been
present in emerging markets such as Russia, Turkey and the
Philippines, as well as post-Great Recession USA, where
a tiny minority has benefited from the anemic economic
recovery, the median household income has barely increased
in four decades, and a growing proportion of the workforce has
dropped out of the labor market altogether (Piketty 2016).

Consolidation of Power in the Presidency

Populists such as Duterte have been able to swiftly consolidate
power and concentrate strategic decision-making in the office of
the presidency. Similar to Trump, Duterte won despite having
the lowest trust ratings on record during the campaign; unlike
Trump, his trust and approval ratings reached new heights
as soon as he was inaugurated. Almost overnight, there was a
massive outpour of public support amid rising expectations of
swift and meaningful political change under the new president.
Amid this avalanche of public support, Duterte managed
to dramatically expand his legislative base and
build a supermajority in the Philippine Congress.

Moreover, with Duterte expected to appoint the bulk of the

justices at the Supreme Court in coming years, he is in a unique
position to place institutions of checks and balances into
hibernation. In fact, the highly underfunded and underequipped
judiciary failed to stand up to Duterte when the latter included


several judges in its notorious list of appease the military, Duterte, visited as many 14 military camps from July 21
suspected drug traffickers. After a faint to August 12, 2016, or less than a month.1 The visits were a calculated effort
attempt to remind the president of the to win the hearts and minds of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), who
necessity to observe due process, Duterte were also promised increased salaries, improved health facilities, and better
immediately pushed the Supreme Court, benefits for themselves and their families (Ranada 2016b). By appointing
namely Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, former President Fidel Ramos to be his Special Envoy to China, who as army
into ‘dignified silence’ by openly threatening chief and defense minister built a long-lasting following among the military
Martial Law and executive disobedience brass, Duterte ensured direct communication channels with the men in the
(Adel 2016). barracks as to preserve functional if not cordial civil-military relations.

Duterte has also managed to build a strong The result is a president with humongous political capital, a robust base of
following among law enforcement agencies, support among key sectors of the society, and the gradual ‘authoritarianization’
particularly the Philippine National Police of the Philippine political system, all of which provides Duterte significant wiggle
(PNP), by promising better equipment, room to unilaterally mold Philippine foreign policy (Taylor & Frantz 2016).
increased salaries and benefits, and his
unconditional moral and political support. To

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US Military Commitment
There is lingering concern in the Philippines Astonishingly, the United States’ FMF to the Philippines was larger in 2010,
over the precise extent of the American prior to the announcement of the Obama administration’s much-touted Pivot to
military commitment to the Philippines. Asia (P2A) policy, than in 2015, when China engaged in massive reclamation
The Southeast Asian country has been the activities in the Spratly chain of islands and stepped up its pressure against the
biggest recipient of American Foreign Military Philippines’ arbitration case at The Hague. More fundamentally, in contrast to
Financing (FMF) in Southeast Asia, with the Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, and, of course, Israel, the Philippines has
bulk of the newly-launched Maritime Security largely received outdated, decommissioned military equipment
Initiative also expected to be channeled to from America, many dating back to the Vietnam War era.
the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
Given the depth of the Philippines’ security challenges, both domestic and
The United States has also been an regional, there should have been some significant change in the quality and
indispensable strategic partner when it quantity of American military assistance to the Philippines (Council on Foreign
comes to Humanitarian Assistance and Relations 2016). The other area of concern was—and continues to be under the
Disaster Relief (HADR) operations in the current administration—whether the Obama administration would have come
Philippines. This was poignantly clear during to the Philippines’ rescue in the event of military escalation over the disputed
the aftermath of the Haiyan (Yolanda) land features and maritime zones within the Philippines’ EEZ, particularly near
super typhoon, which displaced millions of the Reed Bank and Scarborough Shoal. While previous American leaders,
individuals across Central Visayas; claimed particularly under the Carter and Clinton administrations, were clear on the
the lives of thousands of individuals; and parameters of the applicability of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, this was
inflicted billions of dollars in damages. not necessarily the case under Obama administration, which repeatedly
Throughout the whole crisis, the United equivocated on the exact circumstances under which Americans could come to
States government and its various organs the assistance of the Philippines in the South China Sea (Batongbacal 2014).2
were at the forefront of HADR operations,
with thousands of American troops It must be noted, however, that the Obama administration had commendable
deployed to assist victims in far-flung ‘strategic signaling’: deploying aircraft carriers, conducting freedom of
areas unreachable by the AFP, which navigation operations, deploying fighter jets and electronic warfare equipment,
lacked requisite capabilities. and conducting surveillance missions, particularly A-10 flights close to
hotly disputed areas. It made these efforts after China’s usurpation of the
Yet, there are two specific concerns as far Scarborough Shoal, specifically in 2016 as concerns over possible Chinese
as Philippine-America relations are reclamation activities on the disputed land feature gained traction (Cooper and
concerned. On one hand, the quantity and Douglas 2016). Yet, there was a perceptible gap between the United States’
quality of American FMF to the Philippines promise of an ‘ironclad commitment’ to the Philippines, on one hand,
pales in comparison to that of the United and its relatively subdued, if not patently inadequate, pushback against
States’ non-treaty allies and non-democratic Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, on the other.
nations such as Egypt, which has received a
billion dollars in annual aid for the purchase The White House, namely then U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice,
of modern—and in some cases state-of- seemed more interested in calling for calm rather than compliance after the
the-art—American military hardware, from Philippines secured a landmark legal victory against China based on the
advanced fighter jets to tanks. Unlike the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). These factors not
Philippines, Egypt faces no credible external only crystallized Duterte’s simmering doubts about American reliability, but
threat, while domestic terrorism concerns are also helped him to convince the public accordingly. Surveys have consistently
nowhere near those of Jordan or Pakistan, shown that America is atop the list of Filipinos’ most favored nations. But
which have also received of billions of dollars Duterte’s open interrogation of America, “Are you with us or not?”, seems to
of FMF in the past two decades alone. have gained traction among the public. In the December 6-11, fourth quarter


Pulse Asia survey, commissioned by
the Stratbase ADR Institute (ADRi),
50 percent of respondents either Beijing’s Carrots and Sticks
disagreed (17 percent) or were
undecided (33 percent) when asked if Beijing, in contrast to Washington, has
“security/defense relations with provided unequivocal sets of carrots
the US have been beneficial to and sticks depending on the actions
the Philippines” (see Table 1). of the Duterte administration. It is
common knowledge that the Filipino
Duterte’s dramatic shift in Philippine president has met the Chinese
foreign policy, namely setting aside the ambassador, Zhao Jianhua, more than
arbitration case, hasn’t cost him too any other foreign envoy by far. In fact,
dearly, mainly because only 6 percent Western diplomats routinely quip
of respondents identified “Defending about how their Chinese counterpart
the integrity of Philippine territory has turned into an ‘adviser’
against foreigners” as among their to the Filipino president.
top three most urgent national issues
(see Table 2). In short, a combination At the height of the Scarborough Shoal
of teeming doubt (towards American crisis in 2012, China made it clear that
reliability as an ally) and indifference there would be costs for any resistance
(towards foreign policy issues) explains by the Philippines. This was clearly
why Duterte has managed to pull off manifested when China imposed non-
a huge swing in Philippine foreign tariff barriers on Filipino agricultural
policy without, so far, suffering a exports, particularly bananas, as well
serious political backlash. as a travel advisory to discourage

Philippine Public Opinion on the Reliability of the US as a Security Partner,

December 2016
Table 1

Source: Pulse Asia


Chinese tourists from visiting the Duterte’s dramatic shift in Philippine foreign policy, namely set-
Philippines. More hardline elements in ting aside the arbitration case, hasn’t cost him too dearly, mainly
because only 6 percent of respondents identified “Defending the
Beijing called for even more punitive integrity of Philippine territory against foreigners” as among
economic, if not military, sanctions their top three most urgent national issues
unless Manila relented. In late 2013,
officials within the Chinese foreign
ministry offered economic carrots if the abandonment of its arbitration case consider joint development as part
Philippines postponed the submission and adoption of a more ‘pragmatic’ of an alternative strategy in the
of its memorial at The Hague. There (i.e. acquiescent) policy in the disputed waters. Binay proved more
were even suggestions of a mutual South China Sea. China also raised vulnerable to backlash on those
disengagement agreement from the option of a joint development points than Duterte, who leveraged
the Scarborough Shoal.3 agreement throughout the years. his ‘macho’ (siga), patriotic image
During the 2016 presidential to deflect any accusation
Up until the end of the Aquino elections, at least two candidates, of acquiescence/submission
administration, China made it clear then Vice President Jejomar Binay to a foreign power, namely China.
that any revival in bilateral ties would and then Mayor Rodrigo Duterte,
be contingent on the Philippines’ expressed their inclination to

Filipino’s Urgent Issues, December 2016

Table 2

Source: Pulse Asia


Contrary to initial expectations, the arbitration award was released after decision-making structure under the
Aquino stepped down, not before. As the announcement of the final award Aquino administration, the Philippines has
approached, and shortly after, China made its sticks clear by deploying moved towards, in Weberian parlance,
nuclear-bomber-capable aircrafts and jet fighters to the vicinity of the a more Sultanistic-charismatic style of
disputed land features, particularly the Scarborough Shoal. China also governance, where one man has managed
stepped up its naval exercises in the area, while deploying a large to define foreign policy almost unilaterally
flotilla of military and para-military forces across the South China Sea. and with limited consultation with and
deference to the bureaucracy and veterans,
The message was clear: China has the requisite military capability to severely including former president Ramos, who
restrict the Philippines’ military of freedom over flight and navigation in the area. repeatedly broke his silence to express
When China expanded its military facilities across reclaimed land features exasperation with his protégé.
across the Spratly and Paracel chain of islands, it implied, through a series
of reports by the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, that the In particular, Duterte’s seemingly adverse
Scarborough Shoal could be next target (Chan 2016a; Chan 2016b). experiences with America, tracing back to
his days in Davao, have affected his foreign
By now, China didn’t only have the momentum to push ahead with incorporating policy as a president. A self-described
the Scarborough Shoal into a ‘strategic triangle’ at the heart of the South China ‘socialist’ with long-established ties to
Sea, but also the ability to impose an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in leading Islamist and communist ideologues
the area. In fact, from 2015 onwards, senior People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and rebel leaders, namely Nur Misuari
officials and foreign ministry officials repeatedly threatened to do so, probably and Jose Ma. Sison, Duterte seems to
in order to project their strength and intimidate smaller claimant states, such as have nurtured ideological reservations
the Philippines, against pressing their claims. Upon Duterte’s election victory, with the Philippines’ American-leaning
China likely communicated carrots (e.g., large-scale infrastructure investment foreign policy. But what seems to have
deals, expanded trad, low-interest loans) and sticks (e.g., restriction of Philippine crystallized his apprehensions towards
access to disputed land features in the area, imposition of an ADIZ, America are the 2002 “Meiring incident”
reclamation on the Scarborough Shoal) in clear and unequivocal terms. and suggestions, though unverified, that his
visa was repeatedly rejected by American
Unsure about the outgoing Obama administration’s wherewithal and immigration officers, both of which occurred
commitment, the then newly-elected Filipino president calculated that the best during the George W. Bush administration.
course forward was engagement, dialogue and retrenchment in the South China
Sea and the reopening of communication channels with China (Akita 2016; Gady Over the succeeding years, Duterte managed
2016). Duterte repeatedly argued, ahead of his inauguration and ahead of the to convince the Davao City Council to pass
final arbitration award, that conflict was likely if the Philippines didn’t change a resolution cancelling the Balikatan joint
course and abandon the ‘resistance’ strategy of the Aquino administration, military exercises in his backyard, while
while huge economic benefits would be reaped if a more acquiescent position blocking Americans from accessing the
was adopted. To the pragmatically-minded general populace, who had begun to Davao air base for drone operations in
warm up to the new president, Duterte’s ‘reasonable’ position seemed far from 2013. Once he became the president, he
crossing a red line. Duterte successfully framed the South China Sea issue as a first tried to find accommodation with the
choice between two options: conflict (via resistance) or peace (via engagement). Obama administration, which gently advised
Meanwhile, Duterte-leaning propagandists systematically vilified those who called him against radically changing course in
for continuation of a strategy of resistance initiated by the Aquino administration.4 the South China Sea. But when the Obama
administration openly criticized Duterte’s
The final factor is the rapid ‘personalization’ of Philippine foreign policy under signature policy, the war on drugs, there was
Duterte’s watch. Unlike any of his predecessors, including the late dictator an immediate eruption of animosity wherein
Ferdinand Marcos, Duterte repeatedly injected his feelings, experiences and the Filipino leader personally insulted
preferences into a flurry of high-profile diplomatic statements. The words “I, me, both the American Ambassador Philip
my” have frequently sprinkled Duterte’s speeches. From a more institutionalized Goldberg and President Barack Obama.


Over decades, Duterte has openly criticized Americans as arrogant, insensitive as Erdoğan’s tilt to Sunni Arab countries,
and overbearing, serving more as a source of conflict rather than peace and including support for extremist elements,
development in Mindanao (Moss 2016; Tordesillas 2016). In contrast, Duterte amid the Syrian civil war and his continuous
seems to have been impressed by Chinese and Japanese displays of deference threat of downgrading military cooperation
and respect towards him, especially during his visits to Beijing and Tokyo, not with North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In
to mention their open support of his war on drugs, a policy close to his heart both cases, Erdoğan and Putin managed
and a central campaign promise, and their offer of billions of dollars of to refashion their country’s foreign policy
economic assistance, particularly in Mindanao. Many observers suggest that orientation along their personal preferences
Duterte’s headline-grabbing announcements in Beijing (specifically when just as they concentrated state power in
he even suggested joining China’s ‘ideological flow’ along with Russia their respective offices (Taylor, Franz &
‘against the world’) were mainly due to his hosts’ extraordinary Wright 2016). Considering Duterte’s high
display of hospitality to the grateful visitor from Manila. regard for leaders like Putin, who he has
repeatedly described as his ‘hero’, it is
Studies show that proto- or full-fledged Sultanistic administrations tend to engage instructive to take into consideration the
in wild swings in foreign policy formulation, since there are limited constraints legacy of populist leaders in Russia and
on the strong-willed populist leaders who have little respect for diplomatic ritual Turkey in the past decade (CNN 2016).
and conventional wisdom. The most potent expressions of this phenomenon are
Putin’s unexpected invasion of Georgia and Ukraine in the past decade as well

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Strategic Rupture
After his landslide election victory, perfect convergence of interests
Duterte declared: “I will be on core issues such as the South
chartering [sic] a [new] course [for China Sea disputes. For Duterte, in
the Philippines] on its own and will contrast, America is pursuing its own
not be dependent on the United autonomous interest, which may or
States” (Telasur 2016). This was may not overlap with the Philippines’.
his most poignant foreign policy In short, the president views the
statement after securing the highest Philippine-American alliance as one
office in the country. With those few that is built on convenience and
audacious words, Duterte signaled his temporary strategic synchronicity
preference for a radical break from his rather than a special, eternal bond.
predecessors, who had largely placed
America at the center of the Duterte’s ideology reflects shades
Philippine foreign policy calculus. of the Cold War-era Non-Aligned
Movement (NAM). But, given his
On the surface, there was nothing recognition of the thick layers of
controversial with Duterte’s interdependence between America and
pronouncements. The pursuit of the Philippines, Duterte seems to have
an ‘independent’ foreign policy adopted, almost by default, a more
has been at the center of almost transactional approach to the country’s
every administration’s diplomatic relations with Washington. This is the
pronouncements. In fact, the fundamental shift in Philippine foreign
Philippines’ 1987 constitution policy under Duterte. This rupture has
enshrines the principle in Article II, been accompanied with sound and
Section VII: The [Philippine] State fury, which has placed Duterte
shall pursue an independent foreign on global headlines for not
policy. In its relations with other states, necessarily the best reasons.
the paramount consideration shall
be national sovereignty, territorial It started with Duterte telling the
integrity, national interest and the American and Australian ambassadors
right to self-determination. What was to ‘shut their mouths’ after the two
unique with Duterte’s foreign policy Western diplomats criticized, either
pronouncement was his emphasis openly or obliquely, his inappropriate
on a foreign policy that ‘will not be ‘rape joke’ during the presidential
dependent on the United States.’ campaign. Duterte, as a candidate,
threatened to cut off relations with
It is a matter of interpretative the two major allies if and when
divergence. The current Filipino elected into office (Maranon 2016).
president doesn’t seem to recognize Duterte’s apprehensions about the
a full convergence between the core West, particularly America, were
national interests of the Philippines evident during his lukewarm, if not
and the United States. In contrast, awkward, meeting with the American
previous administrations, particularly Ambassador, Philip Goldberg, right
that of President Benigno Aquino after his election victory. Relations
III, saw America as the bedrock of suffered another setback when Duterte
Philippine foreign policy and a key openly lashed out at the envoy,
source of reassurance in its national calling him a “gay son of a bitch”,
security. The two allies, in the view of just two months into office.
Duterte’s predecessor, had almost
Over the succeeding months, as Duterte’s ideology reflects shades of the Cold War-era Non-
traditional partners stepped up their Aligned Movement (NAM). But, given his recognition of the thick
layers of interdependence between America and the Philippines,
criticism of Duterte’s war on drugs, Duterte seems to have adopted, a more transactional
the Filipino leader responded with approach to the country’s relations with Washington.
characteristic cusses and undiplomatic
remarks. Even the leaders of the
United Nations (UN), the then international order, which he National Police (PNP). Amid
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, as believes isn’t in tune with law and growing media scrutiny as well as
well as the European Union found order challenges across developing pressure by the American Senate,
themselves at the receiving end of countries. In a strange turn of events, Washington also postponed
Duterte’s foul-mouthed rebuttals. In the president of the Philippines the renewal of the $400 million
one speech, Duterte literally flashed has increasingly come to sound Millennium Challenge Corporation
his middle finger at his foreign critics in like autocratic leaders such as (MCC), which is conditioned
another unorthodox sign of defiance. Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and on good governance.
Duterte’s offensive rhetoric reached Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia. In
a crescendo when he insulted no less previous decades, these leaders Meanwhile, the Duterte administration
than President Barack Obama ahead enthusiastically presented the has barred American warships from
of their scheduled bilateral meeting on doctrine of ‘Asian values’, which utilizing Philippine bases for conducting
the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit supposedly puts collective interests Freedom of Navigation Operations
in Vientiane, Laos. Later on, when above individual civil liberties, as (FONOPs) in the South China Sea,
asked about whether he regretted his a justification of their poor human while cancelling earlier plans for joint
invective-laced tirades against the rights record. In particular, Duterte patrols within the Philippines’ EEZ. Two
Philippines’ closest partners, and his impresarios have criticized major joint military exercises, namely
Duterte nonchalantly remarked, the universal doctrine of human rights the U.S.-Philippine Amphibious Landing
“I don’t give a shit about anybody as a Western construct. This line of Exercise (PHIBLEX) and Cooperation
observing my behavior” (Chen 2016). argumentation, of course, ignores the Afloat Readiness and Training exercise
fact that Filipino diplomats, namely (Carat), were also cancelled. The fate of
The message was clear: Duterte is in Salvador Lopez (as Chairman of the the Balikatan exercises currently hangs
no mood for criticism from abroad, UN’s Commission on Human Rights) in the balance, but it will likely resume
especially from the West on human and Carlos P. Romulo (as President of in a location other than the South China
rights issues. For him, this is nothing the United Nations General Assembly), Sea. In terms of number of soldiers, as
short of (i) blatant hypocrisy, given played a critical role not only in the well as type of weapons and exercises
the West’s military interventions development of the UN system, involved, there will likely also be a
across the world that have generally but also the global human rights downgrade in the Balikatan exercises,
been accompanied by large-scale regime embodied by the Universal if they push through at all. Reports also
humanitarian crises, and (ii) direct Declaration of Human Rights suggest that the number of American
interference in the domestic affairs (Claudio 2016). warships visiting Subic Bay has
of the Philippines, which contradicts dramatically declined during Duterte’s
the conventional understanding of As anticipated by the author, first six months in office (Gomez 2016).
Westphalian principles that undergird disagreements over human rights The downgrade in bilateral security
the modern international system. became a key bone of contention cooperation between the Duterte and
Duterte pushed the envelope by between the Duterte administration Obama administrations, however,
questioning the fundamental logic and Western allies.5 Perturbed by has gone hand in hand with growing
and functional utility of the UN Duterte’s scorched-earth campaign discussions of a de facto strategic
system, which he accused of against illegal drugs, which claimed an partnership between the Philippines
being useless and overbearing. average of 1,000 lives every month, and Eastern powers, namely Russia
the Obama administration withheld and China, which have offered
At the heart of Duterte’s assault the shipment of 26,000 assault rifles, affordable, advanced weaponries to
against the UN are his profound part of an earlier aid package for modernize the AFP.
reservations with the liberal law enforcement, to the Philippine


Duterte has criticized the West as brazenly and the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) of 1951. Collectively, these
as he has praised the East. During the 2016 agreements transformed the United States into the de facto guarantor
ASEAN summit, he declared, “I am ready of Philippine national security, specifically against external threat.
to not really break ties [with America] but
we will open alliances with China and... Throughout the Cold War, particularly during the Korean and Vietnam wars,
Medvedev [Russia].” During his high-profile the Philippines, host to the largest overseas American bases in Subic and
state visit to Beijing, his first major one, Clark, served as the vortex of Washington’s forward-deployed presence and
Duterte declared that America had ‘lost’ the military operations in the East Asian theatre. The collapse of the Soviet Union,
battle for global leadership and expressed his however, injected a new dynamic into the bilateral relationship by removing
desire to join China’s ‘ideological flow’ along the common enemy that bound the two Cold War allies. As the George Bush
with Russia ‘against the world’ (Zhen 2016). administration welcomed a ‘new world order’, the focus shifted
Over the succeeding months, the two Eastern to the peace dividends of the post-Cold War period.
powers, particularly Russia, have also offered
intelligence-sharing, joint military exercises As economic globalization–the ever-growing trade and investment linkages
and long-term security cooperation among nations–gained pace, and post-Mao China largely integrated into the
to the Southeast Asian country. Western-Japanese-led international market, it became increasingly difficult to
justify America’s gargantuan military presence in Southeast Asia. As a result,
By all measures, these are significant Washington refused to commit large-scale strategic rents to maintain access
developments considering the low quality to its Philippine bases. Meanwhile, a nationalist wave overtook the Philippine
of Philippines-China relations in recent political landscape, as an increasingly influential bloc, led by then Senator
years and the historically lukewarm state of Jovito Salonga, refused to renew the Military Bases Agreement. The cataclysmic
Philippines-Russia relations. While previous Mount Pinatubo eruption in 1991, which severely damaged American
Filipino presidents gazed at Moscow facilities in Subic and Clark, compounded the dilemma faced by the US.
and Beijing through a prism of either
apprehension or/and short-term pragmatic The result was the exit of American troops from the Philippines in 1991, which
calculations, Duterte was ideologically immediately created a dangerous power vacuum that was exploited by China.
determined to broaden the horizons of By 1994, China usurped the Mischief Reef, a low-tide elevation that is claimed
Philippine foreign policy beyond the Western by the Philippines and lies well within its 200 nautical miles Exclusive Economic
episteme. Yet, a careful look at Philippines- Zone (EEZ). The euphoria of patriotism was soon followed by the nightmare of
China relations in recent years reveals the territorial loss and the creeping maritime incursion of Asia’s largest military.
depth of the South China Sea disputes,
as well as the attendant risks of In response, the Ramos administration adopted a four-pronged strategy.
accommodation and confrontation. First, he accelerated defense spending under the Armed Forces of the
Philippines (AFP) Modernization Act, which provided additional funds for
defense acquisitions and the modernization of the country’s decrepit military
Red Star on the Horizon hardware. Second, he successfully pushed for the Visiting Forces Agreement
(VFA), which served as a legal framework for upgraded American military
Throughout the 20th century, the Philippines assistance, enhanced inter-operability through expanded joint exercises, and
largely relied on the American security institutionalized intelligence-sharing and mutual logistical support.
umbrella. In exchange, the latter enjoyed
almost full-spectrum access to civilian and The Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, which prompted the Clinton administration
military facilities across the strategically- to deploy two carrier battle groups to the area, convinced Washington that
located Southeast Asian nation. The it had to maintain robust forward deployment in Southeast Asia. The mere
asymmetric alliance was undergirded by return of American troops, Ramos reckoned, would serve as latent deterrent
three foundational security agreements: The against further Chinese incursions into Philippines-claimed waters. Third,
Military Bases Agreement (1947); the US- Ramos engaged in multilateral diplomacy by encouraging ASEAN to develop a
Philippines Military Assistance Pact (1947): unified and coherent position on the regional maritime disputes, culminating


in the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of
Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea. Finally, areas of the South China Sea. The problem, however, is that almost all
Ramos also engaged in high-stakes bilateral major agreements with China were later exposed as potentially
engagement with China, even going so far unconstitutional, if not treasonous, or were embroiled in corruption and
as adopting a so-called ‘karaoke diplomacy’ bidding anomalies, such as the NBN-ZTE and the North Railway projects.
with China’s flamboyant leader, Jiang
Zemin, who visited the Philippines in Moreover, the Arroyo administration’s ‘pragmatic’ engagement with China
1996 amid much fanfare (Lourdes 2006). failed to prevent the latter from upping the ante in the late-2000s, first by
the official release of the notorious ‘nine-dashed line’ claim in 2009, then
By the mid-2000s, under the Arroyo by growing Chinese paramilitary patrols and harassment of fishing and oil
administration, the Philippines and China exploration activities by smaller claimant states, particularly Vietnam and
commenced what would be later dubbed the Philippines, in 2010 and 2011. It was precisely China’s rising maritime
as a short-lived ‘golden age’ of bilateral assertiveness, which extended even to the East China Sea over the Japanese-
relations. Eager to diversify the Philippines’ administered Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, that provided the strategic impetus
strategic relations, partly due to growing for the Obama administration’s much-touted Pivot to Asia policy
disagreements with Washington over (Morada 2006; International Crisis Group 2012a; b; Pillsbury 2015).
the Philippines’ armed participation in
the reconstruction of post-Saddam Iraq, Benigno Aquino III stepped into office on a moralistic campaign against the
Manila established a de facto strategic perceived corrupt practices of the previous administration. Almost inevitably,
partnership with Beijing. After President this had a negative impact on bilateral relations with China, which was
Arroyo’s September 2004 state visit to implicated in the most controversial agreements of the Arroyo administration.
Beijing, the two sides heralded a new era in Nonetheless, Aquino tried to appease China by, first, refusing to attend the
their bilateral relations. The two neighbors 2010 Nobel Prize Ceremony in honor of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, in a move
signed a Memorandum of Understanding that was deeply appreciated by Beijing, and, second, by making a high-profile
(MOU) on Defense Cooperation, with Beijing state visit to China in 2011, where the two sides agreed to find a mutually-
offering USD 1.2 Million in an unprecedented acceptable compromise and double their bilateral trade to
defense assistance package to the $60 billion before the end of Aquino’s term.
Philippines. The two sides also agreed to
expand their trade, which exploded from The mid-2012 Scarborough Shoal crisis, which revealed the extent of Chinese
USD 17.6 Billion in 2005 to USD 23.4 Billion territorial ambitions in the area, undermined initial efforts to find a reasonable
in 2006 and USD 30.6 Billion in 2007. compromise in the South China Sea. In response, the Aquino administration
In a characteristic exercise of checkbook made the decision to file an arbitration case at The Hague, which represented
diplomacy, China offered two massive the first rules-based effort to force China to respect the rights of smaller
infrastructure investment packages, one in claimant states. Cognizant of the Philippines’ continued struggle to develop
the telecommunications sector (the NBN-ZTE minimum maritime domain awareness and military deterrence, the Aquino
deal), while the other one concerned the administration pushed for the extension of the AFP Modernization Act and
development of the Philippines North Rail negotiated the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which
project using Chinese capital and know-how. allows the United States to gain expanded rotational access to and develop
facilities and preposition equipment in select Philippine bases.
Buoyed by their booming economic relations, Concomitantly, the Aquino administration also stepped up its strategic
the two neighbors made a crucial step cooperation with like-minded American allies such as Japan,
towards negotiating a joint development which offered maritime security assistance.
agreement in the South China Sea. This
was achieved via the Joint Maritime Seismic The lawfare (legal warfare) maneuver, the EDCA and enhanced spoke-to-spoke
Undertaking (2005-2008), which provided cooperation with US allies, and the Revised AFP Modernization Act collectively
a preliminary framework for exploration of represented the key pillars of Aquino’s resistance strategic in the South China
potential natural resources in contested


Sea. The biggest achievement of the Aquino administration, however, was fishermen. Chinese Coast Guard vessels
the successful conclusion of its lawfare against China. On July 12, 2016, continue to exercise administrative
the Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague, constituted under Article 287 and Annex VII control over the area.
of UNCLOS, made a final and binding judgment, which, among other things,
nullified the legal basis of China’s ‘historic rights’ claims across the South China Moreover, concerns over imminent Chinese
Sea; censured the ecological damage caused by China’s massive reclamation reclamation activities over the contested
activities in the South China Sea; and ruled that China and the Philippines shoal haven’t gone away. Meanwhile,
have no overlapping EEZ, since neither the land features in the Spratlys, which China’s rapid reclamation activities in the
hosts several large-scale artificially-created Chinese-occupied land features, Spratlys are creating a sprawling network of
nor the Scarborough Shoal, which is currently administered by airfields and military facilities, which could
China, are naturally-formed islands capable of generating maritime eventually be translated into the foundation
entitlement claims beyond 12 nautical miles of territorial sea. of a de facto exclusion zone or an ADIZ in
the area, and private companies continue
The arbitration award presented the Philippines a unique opportunity to: to shun the energy-rich Reed Bank due
rally multilateral diplomatic pressure on China, especially as the current to concerns over Chinese harassment. In
ASEAN chair; call upon American and likeminded countries to implement the short, despite all the talk of friendship and
ruling’s relevant provisions through FONOPs; encourage and assist fellow rapprochement, there hasn’t been any
ASEAN states such as Vietnam to engage in similar maneuvers against tangible compromise on the ground.
China; and threaten additional arbitration if China took further
unilateral action against the Philippines (Carpio 2016). As Jay Batongbacal, arguably the
Philippines’ leading maritime law expert,
argues, Duterte’s overture towards China
Towards an Interdependent Foreign Policy “has not diminished the real problem, which
is China’s expansion of all its activities into
No less than Ramos, Duterte’s de facto mentor-minister, has consistently called Philippines’ EEZ, creating major negative
for an ‘interdependent’ foreign policy, which recognizes the deep roots and impact such as overfishing, loss of coral
indispensable value of existing alliances and networks of cooperation without habitat, degradation of marine environment,
precluding the pursuit of new strategic partnerships in an increasingly multipolar and a general diminution of [Philippines’]
world. As Ramos—known as the Philippines’ most travelled president—made it exclusive control and loss of security.”6
clear, improved relations with one superpower shouldn’t come at the expense
of existing relations with the other. The essence of an equilateral balancing Duterte’s decision to set aside the
strategy, which is commonly employed by middle-sized nations, is to maintain arbitration award, Batongbacal explains,
cordial and fruitful relations with all key poles of power. Across Southeast Asia, risks “diminution of [the Philippines’
most countries have pursued improved economic relations with China while available strategic] options and [its] ability
maintaining robust security cooperation with America as a hedging strategy. to substantially influence or create a more
favorable outcome of any future settlement
In the case of the Philippines, which lacks sufficient military deterrence and of its disputes with China.” As for Duterte’s
continues to be embroiled in a territorial dispute with China, the United States pivot to Russia, there is more symbolism
represents not only a tried-and-tested hedging option, but also arguably the than substance, since Manila has, so far,
country’s best and only insurance policy under current circumstances. Despite focused more on limited arms purchases,
Duterte’s charm offensive vis-à-vis China, including a decision to effectively particularly drones and rifles, rather than
set aside the arbitration award in regional fora and seemingly even in bilateral frigates, tanks, and submarines. At this
discussions, the two sides have struggled to find a common ground in the point, the Duterte administration is more
disputed waters. As of this writing, China and the Philippines are yet to begin keen on developing trade, investment and
negotiating even a framework of modus vivendi in the South China Sea: Filipino low-grade security cooperation with Russia
fishermen aren’t allowed to enter the lagoon within the Scarborough Shoal, in order to signal to America that it has
which is fisheries-rich and serves as a crucial haven for stranded or recuperating alternative options and isn’t beholden to


any specific power. Above all, any major purchase of Russian and/or Chinese defense equipment not
only raises concerns over quality, maintenance and training, but also compatibility with the
heavily American-Western configuration of the AFP’s existing military hardware.

Meanwhile, there is an opportunity for the Philippines and the new government in the United States
to reset bilateral relations. By all indications, the Donald Trump administration will likely take a less
strident position on human rights and democracy-promotion abroad. Instead, the focus will be on
common strategic interests and maintaining a robust regional network of alliances to rein in Chinese
maritime assertiveness. This means a major bone of contention in Philippine-American relations during
the Obama administration could be mitigated, though the American media, civil society, and legislature
will most likely continue their outright condemnation of Duterte’s scorched-earth war on drugs.

China’s expanding strategic footprint across disputed waters simply reinforces the necessity for the
Philippines to maintain comprehensive security cooperation with the United States. Emerging domestic
security challenges will also likely reinforce the fundamental logic of the Philippine-American military
alliance. The virtual collapse of the peace negotiations between the Philippine government and
communist rebels, as well as the growing threat posed by Islamic State affiliates in Mindanao, have
deepened the AFP’s necessity for logistical, intelligence, and financial support from traditional allies
such as America. No wonder then, despite expressing his deep reservations with existing security
agreements with the United States, Duterte has given the green light for the implementation of
EDCA, a potential prelude to the restoration of bilateral security ties to status quo ante.

Relishing its historically deep and increasingly cordial relations with Durterte, the Shinzo Abe
administration in Japan is also in a unique position to facilitate recovery of bilateral Philippine-American
ties, credibly counter China’s economic charm offensive vis-à-vis the Philippines, and continually
enhance Philippine maritime security capabilities. The Philippines’ newly-appointed Ambassador
to China, Chito Santa Romana, best describes what a balanced, reasonable, and optimal independent
foreign policy should (and could) look like under the current administration:7

“There are several key pillars of [the new] diplomatic strategy: improving relations with China
and Russia; moving away from the country’s tight alignment with the US; and strengthening ties
with ASEAN, Japan and other neighboring countries. However, this strategic shift does not mean
that the Philippines will abandon its treaty alliance with the US or cut off its historic, cultural and
economic ties with the US, nor does it mean that it will form a military alliance with China or
Russia. Instead, the Philippines will mainly focus on promoting political relations and economic
partnership with China and Russia while exploring limited forms of military cooperation. Under
this new approach, economics, trade and commerce--and not territorial and maritime disputes--
will be the key driver of Philippines-China relations. The disputes will still be subject to negotiations
but they will not be at the front and center of bilateral relations [with China], nor will they [serve as]
an obstacle to the improvement of bilateral ties.”

Ultimately, Duterte’s foreign policy will not only depend on the carrots and sticks offered by major
powers, since he largely employs a transactional logic to foreign relations, but also his domestic
popularity and ability to rein in opposition and keep institutions of checks and balances in a state of
hibernation. A year from now, Duterte may find himself in a radically different situation, where he will
have to consider the interest of domestic constituencies, cope with diminishing political capital,
and perilously confront a more expansive Chinese strategic footprint in the South China Sea.


Image credit:
Specifically, he visited the following camps respectively: 104th Infantry Battalion in Isabela City, Basilan (July
21); Western Mindanao Command headquarters in Zamboanga City (July 21); Camp Siongco in Awang Datu
Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao (July 22 and August 18); Fort Magsaysay in Palayan City, Nueva Ecija (July 26); Camp
Guillermo Nakar in Lucena City, Quezon (July 28); 60th Infantry Battalion headquarters in Asuncion, Davao del
Norte (July 29); Camp Victoriano Luna or AFP Medical Center in Quezon City (August 2); Camp General Macario
Peralta in Jamindan, Capiz (August 5); Camp Panacan, Davao City (August 6); Camp Lapu-Labu in Cebu City
(August 5); Camp Lukban in Catbalogan, Samar (August 8); Camp Edilberto Evangelista in Cagayan de Oro City
(August 9); Camp Major Cesar Sang-an (1st Infantry Division or Tabak Division) in Labangan, Zamboanga del Sur
(August 10); Camp Teodulfo Bautista in Jolo, Sulu (August 12);

Corroborated by the author during his on-the-record exchanges with senior American officials, namely
former Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg during the 2015 US-Taiwan-Japan Security Dialogue and US
Pacific Command Admiral Harry Harris during the 2016 Shangri-La Dialogue.

The media has reported this portion and when the issue was raised by the author with Chinese officials,
there was no denial.

Among those targeted were Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and, to a lesser degree, the author.

For instance see the author’s presentation at ISEAS, National University of Singapore, August 23, 2016.

Interview with author, February 28, 2017.

Interview with the author, January 22, 2017.


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