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Stuck in the middle: Duterte, China and the US


Stuck in the middle: Duterte, China and the US

Rodrigo Duterte Philippines President attends business forum at Lotte Hotel in Seoul


Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte appears conflicted in his loyalty to China and the US, with growing domestic pushback and the COVID-19 pandemic forcing him to pull back from his pro-China foreign policy.


– Opposition pressure has led Duterte to waffle on whether to allow Chinese bases in Philippine territorial waters
– Duterte’s foreign policy goals of realigning the Philippines with China over the US are being continually stymied by economic concerns and military tensions, especially in the South China Sea
– As the COVID-19 pandemic provokes discontent amongst the Filipino people, Duterte will be forced to weigh up the benefits of supporting China or the US


The Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56), the Philippine navy frigate BRP Gregaorio del Pilar (PF-15) and the Philippine navy frigate BRP Ramon Alcaraz (PF-16) steam in formation during Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Philippines 2014. In its 20th year, CARAT is an annual, bilateral exercise series with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the armed forces of nine partner nations including Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Timor-Leste.
Photo: U.S. Pacific Fleet/Flickr

The South China Sea (SCS) is a major geopolitical flashpoint. It has also become a key playing field for a great power struggle in the Asia-Pacific as China continues to enforce its claims to sovereignty with the controversial nine-dash line map, which is based on historical claims that are not recognised under international law. Tensions have been high between China and the Philippines ever since China ignored a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) that stated that Beijing had no claim to Philippine territory in the SCS. Relations between China and the Philippines are naturally frayed, yet when the US has pushed back against Chinese claims in the SCS, it has found its Filipino ally unwilling to assist. In a particularly prominent example in June, when the US navy led military exercises in the SCS, the Philippine navy was ordered by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte not to join.

Duterte, a populist strongman who heavily favours the military, has taken a rather dovish approach to China. Philippine Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana explained that “President Rodrigo Duterte has a standing order … that we should not involve ourselves in naval exercises in the South China Sea, except in our national waters.” This directive has been criticised by former Philippine senator Antonio Trillanes as “a clear manifestation of Philippine support” towards China’s encroachment in the SCS. Duterte’s response has been to argue that action against China would lead to war and that it would be futile to go against Beijing as “China has the arms. We do not have [them].”

This approach goes against the grain in the broader Philippine society. Surveys show that 70% of Filipinos believe that the government should assert its sovereign rights in the SCS. The Chief of the Philippine Navy, for example, has called on Duterte to protest against Chinese surveillance ships. Other members of Duterte’s government such as Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr. have reasserted the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling, calling the ruling a non-negotiable one. Other political elites like political rival Antonio Carpio have called on Duterte to press the PCA ruling at the UN General Assembly this month.

This opposition has started to influence the president’s foreign policy. On September 11, Duterte made a surprising pushback to China in a meeting with Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe. In talks, Duterte emphasised that disputes in the SCS “must be resolved peacefully in full accord with the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea and other international instruments.” This includes the Hague ruling that Duterte had previously dismissed. It is too early to say, however, whether this change in attitude marks a major change in his foreign policy.


Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks with Philippine President Rodrigo R. Duterte during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations defense ministers meeting in Clark.
Photo: U.S. Indo-Pacific Command/Flickr

Despite Duterte’s pivot, his tenure can be characterised as pursuing a foreign policy that aims to distance the Philippines from the US — a treaty ally — while strengthening relations with China. Duterte’s push towards stronger ties with China can be seen as purely financial. He has cultivated heavy Chinese investment for his infrastructure projects, securing around US$24 billion in loans and credit. In order to maintain these financial connections with China, Duterte has opted for a non-confrontational stance towards sovereignty disputes in the SCS. These financial connections, however, have borne little fruit for the Philippines. Of these much heralded infrastructure projects, only two have been officially launched, and both of them have been so marred by controversy that Duterte has had to call for a review for all Chinese-funded projects, calling into question the assumptions underlying Duterte’s foreign policy.

However, a pivot back to the US would not be easy for Duterte. At the beginning of his presidency in October 2016, Duterte stated his goal of distancing the Philippines from the US when he declared that as long as he was in power, the US should “not treat us like a doormat because [they will be] be sorry for it.” The US has a strong military presence in the Philippines, one that Duterte has made multiple attempts to remove. As recently as February 2020, the president declared that he would abolish the Philippines-United States Visiting Forces Agreement. However, the government put the cancellation on hold in August, citing rising military tensions. The combination of domestic outcry and Chinese maritime incursion has stalled Duterte’s plans to detach the US from the Philippines.

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Customers lineup to get their temperature checked outside a supermarket in Quezon City, the Philippines, on Friday March 13, 2020.
Photo: Asian Development Bank/Flickr

Duterte appears conflicted about maintaining his path of realignment on foreign policy. The combined outcry of Philippine elites, military and citizenry has kept him from making too dramatic a shift. His recent call for a peaceful resolution in the SCS can be seen as Duterte attempting to acquiesce to the demands of Philippine society. However, if he brings up the Hague ruling at the UN General Assembly in September, that would be a signal of Duterte’s retreat from his ‘independent’ foreign policy.

If Duterte does not bring up the ruling, he will likely press on with his foreign policy goals, allowing China to consolidate its military hold in the SCS while also weakening the US military presence in Southeast Asia. Expect Duterte to continue to cultivate Chinese finance and infrastructure, though he will likely be warier of deals he makes with Beijing. The lure of Chinese money remains, even if it does not easily lead to constructing bridges and buildings. Duterte is likely aware, however, that a shift back towards the US would result in domestic political gain. Not only would it endear him to political elites and the military but also to the Filipino people, among whom pro-American attitudes are widely held; 77% of Philipinos are ‘confident’ that US President Donald would do the ‘right thing’ concerning world affairs, the highest level of support anywhere in the world. Duterte only has two years left in his presidential term, so he might find it easier to harness these beliefs to see out the remainder of his term.

Duterte currently remains very popular with voters, but that popularity may have taken a hit with his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. In December 2019 he had an approval rating of 82%, his highest approval rating ever. Since then, the pandemic has hit the Philippines hard — despite a strict lockdown from March to June, the country has still experienced around 250,000 cases and 4,000 deaths to date. There have also been multiple cases of Philippine law enforcement acting with extreme prejudice, arresting and even killing citizens for violating quarantine rules. Polling has become difficult in this situation, but outrage on social media suggests that Duterte’s support could be weakened. With the pandemic possibly leaving the Philippines with a flatlined economy and a bitter populace, Duterte will likely be even more torn between pursuing financial gains from China and political gains with the US.

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