Visiting Beijing last week, President Rodrigo Duterte announced
that the “separation” of the Philippines from the United States,
both economically and militarily.
Long a staunch critic of the United States, Duterte’s public
remarks threatened to reverse decades of close alliance and
cooperation between the US and the Philippines. Such a reversal
of Filipino foreign policy would have significant implications
for China’s growing sphere of influence as well as the US “pivot
to the Pacific.”
China has already made significant and unlawful territorial
claims in the South China Sea including the
construction of military installations on the Spratly Islands,
Filipino sovereign territory.
Duterte walking a thin line
Following his trip to Beijing, Mr. Duterte traveled to Japan for
meetings with Japanese Prime Minister and staunch US ally Shinzo
Abe. In Tokyo, Mr. Duterte carefully walked back his earlier call
for a separation from Washington, explaining that he is pursuing
a separation of foreign policy rather than the severance of
formal, diplomatic ties. Nevertheless, his sharp reversal carries
with it significant regional concerns.
It is likely that Mr. Duterte’s break with Washington over
economic and military aid will lead to a significant uptick in
state-directed investment in the Philippines from Chinese
state-owned firms. This action would reflect a similar approach
Beijing took to the election of Taiwanese President Chen
Shui-bian, who attempted to normalize the country’s relations
with its longtime rival.
China responded with national investment, but as time passed, it
grew restless with the perceived lack of reciprocity from Taipei.
In the case of the Philippines, China would likely seek future
acceptance from Manila in response to its activities in the
While Mr. Duterte has long had an anti-American track record,
recent US foreign policy may have inadvertently contributed to
closer ties between Manilla and Beijing. Following The Hague’s
ruling in favor of Filipino sovereignty over the disputed Spratly
Islands, the Washington encouraged Manilla to engage Beijing in a
discussion rather than resorting to more aggressive measures to
preserve their territory.
Even while running for the Presidency, Mr. Duterte frequently
cited that, from his perspective, the US was not fulfilling its
treaty obligations to the Philippines which further encouraged
him to rapproach the regional power upon assuming office.
More a symbolical statement than a clean break
Regardless of Mr. Duterte’s preferences, it is unlikely that
these overtures to Beijing will significantly alter the Asian
balance of power. While China has offered $13.5 billion in aid,
it wants from Manilla the one thing Mr. Duterte cannot provide:
deference on Chinese control of the Spratlys.
Mr. Duterte is popular domestically due to his violent crack-down
on drug dealers, but this popularity would not be able to endure
Filipino acquiescence to China regarding the disputed islands,
particularly following The Hague’s ruling. China is highly
unpopular across the Philippines with 65% disapproval rating.
Conversely, the United States holds a 64% approval rating.
Mr. Duterte’s comments in Tokyo walking back his earlier comments
demonstrate his awareness of this domestic political dilemma. He
knows that he cannot unilaterally disengage from the two defense
pacts the Philippines holds with the United States without
legislative approval, approval he would never receive.
Because of this, it is likely much of this inflammatory language,
while he may personally be anti-American, is driven by a desire
to attract Chinese investment. China has a history of heavy
investment in countries with the expectation of returns which do
not always materialize.
While there is current excitement in Beijing, the promised money
will not be sufficient to purchase a greater sphere of influence
in the South China Sea. The United States will simply wait Mr.