The headlines of the world between October 18-27, 2016 were focused on President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. He visited Beijing on October 18-21 and Tokyo on October 25-27. The world closely watched his talks with the Chinese and Japanese leaders, as well as his positions over the relationship of the Philippines with the United States, and the Philippines’ stand on South China Sea. Since his election on May 20 this year, he has shaken the world with his pronouncements of deserting America and realigning Philippine foreign policy towards a closer relationship with China.
It is generally acknowledged that the Philippines has been the staunchest US ally in the Asia-Pacific since its independence in 1946. The Philippine support of the US was not just based on geo-political interest nor economic dependency, but rather on the broader emotional attachment and the trust of its people towards the US. In fact, Filipinos’ trust levy on the US is often the highest in the world. The latest Pew survey shows that the US enjoys a net trust (trust minus distrust) rating of 72 percent. Under the Philippines’ democratic electoral system, it is almost unimaginable that any popularly elected president can shift the country’s long-standing foreign policy orientation away from the US.
The world wants to find out how Duterte will balance the positions of China and Japan over the South China Sea issue. These two countries are both important to the economy of the Philippines and Duterte has expressed willingness to foster closer relationships with them. The two countries rolled out the red carpet for him and the international press is watching whether Japan can swing his mind back to the policy of supporting the US position on the South China Sea issue.
Beijing and Tokyo Visits
Duterte went through both high-profile visits with few surprises. In Beijing, the two countries signed 13 agreements covering economic cooperation, cultural exchange, transnational narcotic crime prevention, and a naval coast guard working group dialogue mechanism. The most significant development of his trip to Beijing was the mutual commitment to peacefully resolve the South China Sea dispute on a bilateral basis sans any pre-conditions.
In Tokyo, he reiterated his stand that the Philippines’ relationship with China is conducted on economic grounds, and that he supports freedom of navigation and overflight over the South China Sea, as well as a rules-based approach to the peaceful settlement of maritime disputes without resorting to threats or the use of force in the South China Sea. In a speech before businessmen, Duterte explained his grievances against America: “Every time there’s an issue, whatever, human rights, it’s like we’re dogs on a leash, they will throw the bread beyond the dog’s reach… I want to prove that there is such thing as the dignity of the Filipino people.” His emotional stand reflects a kind of push-back against US exceptionalism and should be understood that way.
The Beijing and Tokyo visits were the most important foreign trips by Duterte since his assumption of office. In contrast to the popular press depiction of him as a maverick and simplistic populist politician aka “Donald Trump,” his pronouncements and deeds on both occasions have demonstrated a high degree of consistency. Duterte emphasized economic relationships in both trips. Both the Philippines and China refrained from any talk of a military relationship and his stand on the South China Sea in Tokyo reaffirmed long-standing Philippine policy. While he complained about foreign troops in the Philippines in Tokyo, he did not talk about abrogating the US-Philippines mutual defence treaty.
Duterte’s Foreign Policy Thoughts
Duterte has not given a formal foreign policy discourse, and even in his State of the Nation address in July he rarely touched on foreign policy. However, we can glimpse his thinking in a speech from the former national security adviser, General Jose Almonte.
On October 6, the Philippine presidential palace hosted a press conference to commemorate the first 100 days of the Duterte presidency. The presidential press secretary invited Almonte to give an assessment of the performance of the president. The hour-long discourse was aptly titled “Understanding Duterte Strategy: For Pro and Anti-Dutertes” and it was posted on YouTube.
The perception that Duterte’s foreign policy is irrational and simply reflects his personal whims is wrong. His foreign policy reflects his nationalistic personality.
Almonte was the national security advisor of President Fidel Ramos (1992-1998) and an acknowledged geopolitical strategist and scholar in the Philippine military. He is considered a realist and a nationalist, and his views were not popular with the neoliberal order prevailing in the Philippines after the 1986 EDSA revolution. His views on geopolitical issues and the priority of the country are:
Asia-Pacific geopolitics is defined by interactions between China and the US. China’s aspiration for a new regional order is understandable in light of its national ascendancy. The US attempt to protect the existing post-World War II order in Asia with it as the hegemon is also understandable. They are enemies but they don’t want to go to war, even if the US is forming an island chain to contain the Chinese. They also have more than 95 institutional contact points to prevent accidental misfires. The Philippines should stay away from big power rivalry, and the president’s “colorful” anti-American language should not be taken literally.
The Philippines has many pressing domestic problems and it should put the resolution of such problems as its top national priority. The country should be friendly to all countries and lessen its dependence on the US. The three most important domestic problems are:
1. Internal war: The country’s communist insurgency started in 1947 if one counts the Hukbalahap movement, and in 1968 if one counts the formation of the Communist Party of the Philippines. In either case, the country suffered from the longest communist insurgency in the world. In addition, the Muslim insurgency that started in 1972 is still unresolved. With an estimated 4 million soft drug users in the country, the drug malaise is tantamount to yet another internal war.
2. Broken politics: The country’s traditional political and business elite have joined forces to frustrate government reform efforts. The unholy alliance has resulted in a political gridlock that essentially places the country in a state of paralysis. The weakened state cannot solve social inequality and poverty issues.
3. Business monopolies: The unholy business-political alliance has also resulted in uncompetitive monopolies. The Philippine economy is stagnant and is strangled by these monopolies.
Assessing the first 100 days of the Duterte presidency, Almonte observed that Duterte has done well so far in tackling the national priority and the three pressing domestic issues. Duterte has asserted the independence of Philippine diplomacy, reached an indefinite ceasefire with communist insurgents, and appointed cabinet secretaries recommended by the communists. His warning to the telecom industry has forced the telecom monopolies to increase investment. On the war against drugs, Duterte has succeeded in getting almost 800,000 users to come forward for voluntary rehabilitation and the drug-related crime rate has dropped significantly. Duterte’s policies enjoy unprecedented high levels of public support and he has a lot of policy elbow room.
Almonte did caution against the depletive outbursts of Duterte which reflect colloquial language usage which are not uncommon among local politicians. The literal translations to English are quite offensive and the international press often casts him as an unstable maverick.
While a lot of attention centers on the occasional outbursts of Duterte and his attempts to steer clear of US influence, his silence on the US-Philippines mutual defence treaty ensures a certain degree of US influence on Philippine foreign policy. However, his posture on foreign policy independence to steer clear of big power rivalries, and taking domestic issues as national priorities instead of divisive external issues, can meaningfully lower tensions in the South China Sea. The press reports that Chinese coast guards are no longer blocking Filipino fishermen from Scarborough Shoal after four years are tangible proof that his recent Beijing visit did provide a more cordial atmosphere in the South China Sea. His foreign policy readjustment has a logical policy basis. The perception that his foreign policy is irrational and simply reflects his personal whims is wrong. Duterte’s foreign policy has its internal logic and reflects his nationalistic personality.