Philippines’ Duterte seeks alliance with China but defence officials warn of strategic threat
Dissonance in Philippine foreign policy as president backs China while military nurtures US ties
Since his ascent to power, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has overseen a remarkable shift in his country’s foreign policy, particularly towards China. The tough-talking Filipino leader, who is as notorious abroad as he is popular at home, has described China as a friendly and generous nation, a partner for national development and a potential military ally for the Philippines.
During his high-profile state visit to China last year, when he snubbed both Washington and Tokyo in favour of Beijing, Duterte declared his “separation” from the United States, the Philippines’ sole treaty ally, and offered to realign his country with China’s “ideological flow”.
Not short of hyperbole, he sought a “new world order” where the Philippines is in alliance with China and Russia “against the world”. Along the way, Duterte even claimed Chinese ancestry to impress his hosts, who rolled out the red carpet and lavished their guest with utmost respect and a generous package of economic aid.
Duterte’s friendly comments towards China went hand in hand with his blitzkrieg of insults and threats against top US officials, including then President Barack Obama.
This stands in clear contrast to Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino, who went so far as likening China to Nazi Germany on multiple occasions, while fortifying defence ties with the US. Under the Aquino administration, communication channels with China effectively collapsed, while the Philippines became the first country to take China to international court over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Duterte’s over-the-top rhetoric, however, hasn’t fully translated into actual policy. This has been more than evident in how key officials, including Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana, have been constantly contradicting their principal by striking a more orthodox tone and tirelessly preserving the foundations of the Philippine-US defence alliance.
While Duterte enthusiastically plays up Chinese economic assistance, his deputies in the security establishment often underscore the perceived threats from Chinese maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean, particularly near the Benham Rise. Given the historically profound influence of the (American-aligned) Philippine military, it would be foolhardy to ignore the opinion and sentiments of senior defence officials.
In effect, the Philippines currently has three different foreign policies simultaneously: first, Duterte’s own pronouncements, which tend to be more reflective of his personal preferences and emotions; secondly, the defence officials’ more conventional world view, where China is seen primarily as a strategic threat; and finally, the foreign affairs department and press officials, who, through an excruciating exercise in semantics, constantly try to synthesise blatantly contradictory statements between Duterte and his generals.
The festering dissonance in Philippine foreign policy has been more than evident in recent weeks, as Duterte and the security establishment offered very divergent positions vis-à-vis reports of growing Chinese assertiveness on the country’s western and eastern shores.
Earlier this month, defence officials accused China of engaging in suspicious activities within the Benham Rise, part of the Philippines’ continental shelf in the Pacific Ocean. In particular, Defence Secretary Lorenzana suggested that Chinese vessels could have been engaged in illegal oceanographic research within areas that fall under the Philippines’ exclusive jurisdiction.
His comments, which were flatly refuted by Chinese officials, provoked a torrent of media coverage and rekindled deep public mistrust towards Beijing. They came amid visits by high-level Chinese officials to the Philippines, who offered large investment deals to the Southeast Asian nation.
Duterte quickly tried to downplay the situation by claiming that he gave China the permission to conduct marine scientific research in the area. In response, both defence and foreign affairs secretaries rebuffed the president’s statement by claiming no knowledge of such a purported arrangement, which, per the Philippine constitution, requires a formal agreement under supervision of proper government agencies.
Just as the dust over the Benham Rise issue began to settle, Filipino defence officials raised concerns over the possibility of Chinese construction activities on the disputed Scarborough Shoal. Philippine defence officials were quick to describe it as an “unacceptable” scenario, emphasising the indispensability of the US to its prevention.
Influential figures such as Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio immediately called for doubling down on defence ties with America and a vigorous diplomatic response to China.
Duterte, however, was quick to dismiss any suggestion of pushback, arguing the Philippines “cannot stop China from doing its thing,” while, in a clear contradiction of his own defence minister, he stated that, “Americans were not able to stop them [anyway].”
At this point, it is far from clear whether what we are witnessing is part of an elaborate “good cop, bad cop” double game by the Duterte administration. A more plausible hypothesis, however, is that the Philippine foreign policy is the product of constant bargaining and contestation between an unorthodox yet popular president and a very orthodox and powerful defence establishment.
The upshot is a classic case of policy dissonance, leaving Filipino diplomats and press officials the impossible task of presenting a coherent and sensible picture of Philippine foreign policy to a bewildered domestic and international audience. Welcome to the age of Duterte.