How would Duterte handle China?

Renato de Castro, Stratbase-ADRi Trustee

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Image Source: Politiko

After the withdrawal of the U.S. forces from the Philippines in late 1992, three former Philippine presidents (Ramos, Estrada, and Arroyo) had steered Philippine foreign policy away from geo-politics/high politics. They intentionally avoided the great political games the big powers play and concentrated on development diplomacy and on the protection of the interests and welfare of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW). President Benigno Aquino III altered this pattern by challenging China’s expansive maritime claim in the South China Sea, shifting the AFP’s focus from domestic security to territorial defense among other key strategies. In late April 2014, the Philippines signed the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with its strategic ally—the U.S. Designed to constrain China, the agreement provides American forces strategic footprint through rotational presence in Philippine territory.

Thus, a crucial challenge for President Elect Rodrigo Duterte is whether he will continue President Aquino’s challenge to China. Dealing with an emergent regional power was a campaign issue in the run-up the 2016 elections, with some candidates criticizing Aquino’s hardline policy. Duterte was among those who were critical of the Aquino Administrations’ geo-political agenda in the South China Sea. The self-proclaimed social-democratic and nationalist declared that he is willing to have bilateral talks with China over the dispute. He also suggested the possibility of joint exploration of South China Sea’s natural resources or China building railroads in Mindanao. He also disparaged US-Philippine relations.

After the election, however, Duterte changed his tune. He said he would settle the territorial disputes through multilateral negotiations that include allies such as the US, Japan, and Australia, as well as claimant states. This is clearly a reversal of his earlier position. Interestingly, Mayor Duterte has also changed his cynical view on Philippine-U.S. security relations. In late May 2016, he declared that he is in favor of continuing EDCA.

Whether Duterte will continue President Aquino’s policy with China, he must take into account many factors, including public opinion and the growing involvement of the U.S. and Japan in the spat. Many surveys indicate that an overwhelming majority of Filipinos support Aquino’s efforts to challenge China’s claim in the South China. As a representative of the will of the people, he must take heed of this reality.

Another key factor is America’s strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific region and Japan’s growing strategic interests in the South China, which has resulted to an impasse in East Asia. While this stabilized the situation, it has failed to resolve the dispute, instead creating a tense and protracted stand-off. The other claimant states are using this lull to build-up their respective naval capabilities for any eventuality. It is not unthinkable, however, that if the current stalemate works against its interests, China might resort to the use of force. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Wi, during his first visit to Manila, was very emphatic about China’s view that the Philippines is primarily responsible for the tension in the Philippine-China bilateral ties never mind that will surely invite intervention by the US and Japan. The repercussions could be dire.

Therefore, Duterte will have to find a middle ground between adopting this foreign policy of challenging China’s expansive maritime claim and the country’s other foreign policy concerns, like economic diplomacy and the protection of the welfare and interests of OFWs. China, after all, is the second largest economy in the world. Like the candidates he defeated, Duterte called for closer relations with China, underscoring the necessity of being pragmatic and non-confrontational with the giant. If he decides to accommodate China’s expansion in the South China Sea, Duterte will do well to reflect on how the Filipinos, the U.S. and Japan, its recent security partner, will view such a potentially risky gambit.

This new development, the growing involvement of the U.S. and Japan in the South China Sea dispute, has generated a dangerous impasse in the region. While the two powers continue to help the Philippines in building up its limited deterrence capabilities against China, the setup also implicates the country even deeper into the growing turmoil. Thus, Duterte will not only find himself constrained by his predecessor’s policy, he will also have to deal with its consequences.

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