Duterte and generals split on China rapprochement
High stakes internal battle under way over direction of Philippine foreign policy
Analysis of Philippine foreign policy, especially in recent months, has largely revolved around the bigger-than-life persona of President Rodrigo Duterte. Since his accession to power nine months ago, the firebrand Filipino president, once dubbed the "Trump of the East," has consistently defied conventional wisdom, shaking up the Philippine political system as never before.
Promising an "independent" foreign policy, which "will not be dependent on the United States," Duterte has overseen a perceptible downgrading of bilateral military cooperation with the Philippines' sole treaty ally. In response to American criticisms of his human rights record, Duterte has not shied away from cursing top leaders in Washington, including former President Barack Obama.
Meanwhile, Duterte has progressively restored bilateral relations with China, which has offered large-scale investment and development aid in exchange for peaceful management of disputes in the South China Sea. Much less attention, however, has been paid to the consequential role of the Philippine security establishment, which harbors deep suspicions toward China and seeks to maintain robust military cooperation with America.
Far from being the exclusive domain of Duterte, Philippine foreign policy is a contested battlefield among various factions with conflicting geopolitical persuasions. The Philippines' current chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has raised the stakes even further, since Manila has significant influence over the regional agenda, specifically on the South China Sea.
What happens in the Philippines will inevitably have significant impact on the broader regional landscape.
With soaring approval ratings and supermajority support in the Philippine Congress, Duterte has enjoyed significant leeway in shaping a foreign policy unlike that of any of his recent predecessors. As a self-described socialist, known for his anticolonialist sloganeering and adversarial history with America, Duterte's brand of populism represents the rejection of liberal democratic institutions at home and the American-leaning policies of the ruling elite.
Thus, a recalibration, if not revolution, in Philippine foreign policy was a key element of Duterte's unlikely rise to power. In stark contrast to his predecessor, Benigno Aquino, who likened China to Nazi Germany, Duterte has often portrayed Beijing in a highly positive light.
The tough-talking Filipino leader has described China as a vital partner for national development and a potential military ally, while constantly downplaying the South China Sea issue. Most recently, Duterte thanked China for "loving [the Philippines] and helping [his country] survive the rigors of this life."
As a concession to China, Duterte has scaled back various joint military exercises with America, including the U.S.-Philippine Amphibious Landing Exercise and the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training Exercise. He also canceled plans for joint maritime patrols with America, while barring the U.S. Navy from utilizing Philippine bases for conducting Freedom of Navigation Operations in the disputed waters.
But the security establishment -- composed of generals, defense officials, statesmen, and diplomats with more orthodox views -- has constantly resisted any alteration in the foundations of Philippine foreign policy, while viewing Duterte's strategic flirtation with China with deep suspicion.
Shortly after a visit to Manila by Chinese Commerce Minister Zhong Shan and Vice Premier Wang Yang, who offered a multibillion dollar investment package, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana rang alarm bells about Chinese activities months earlier in the resource-rich Benham Rise.
Defense officials accused China of engaging in suspicious activities in the area, which is part of the Philippines' continental shelf in the Pacific Ocean. Lorenzana raised the possibility that Chinese vessels may have been engaged in illegal oceanographic research, allegedly aimed at canvassing natural resources, placing surveillance equipment, and exploring the topographical conditions for deployment of submarines.
Good cop, bad cop?
Duterte, who seemed unaware even of the location of Benham Rise, tried to downplay the affair by claiming that he had unilaterally given China permission for its activities, which would have been beyond his constitutional power. The defense and foreign secretaries both denied his claim immediately.
Under growing pressure, Duterte asked the Philippine navy to step up patrols, while contemplating the establishment of permanent structures in the area to assert Philippine sovereign rights. Days later, tensions between Duterte and the security establishment flared again when the president suggested that Manila "cannot stop China" from building structures on the contested Scarborough Shoal, which lies just over 185 km from the Philippines.
Leading figures in the Philippine Senate and judiciary have openly warned the president against making defeatist statements, while opposition members of Congress filed an impeachment complaint, accusing Duterte of committing treason. Lorenzana described the prospect of Chinese construction activity on the shoal as "very, very disturbing" and "unacceptable," especially given its geographical proximity to the Philippines' Clark and Subic Bay military bases.
Crucially, Lorenzana underlined the importance of American military assistance in preventing full Chinese occupation of the shoal. Confronting an open backlash among his generals and prominent figures in the media and government, Duterte, who has eagerly sought the favor of the military since taking power, claimed that China had reassured him there would be no reclamation activity in the Scarborough Shoal.
Subsequently, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs made clear that the maritime disputes would be raised in Duterte's upcoming visit to China, where he is expected to meet President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a Belt and Road Initiative summit in May.
Duterte meanwhile toughened his tone during a recent visit to military facilities in the western island of Palawan, when he ordered Filipino troops to occupy and assert Philippine sovereignty over disputed land features across the Spratly island chain. He even promised to personally raise the Philippine flag on Thitu Island, the second largest of the Spratly chain, on Philippine Independence Day on June 12.
While this could be just a calculated effort to shore up his patriotic credentials and stave off a backlash from the defense establishment, Duterte is expected to move ahead with refurbishing the decrepit airstrip and facilities in the Thitu.
The ongoing back-and-forth between Duterte and the defense establishment is being reflected in the Philippines' chairmanship of ASEAN. On one hand, Duterte is eager to stick to issues close to his heart, such as fighting transnational terrorism and drug trafficking, while sidelining more sensitive issues such as maritime disputes. He has made clear that he will not use a victory on the South China Sea conflict at the international Permanent Court of Arbitration to put pressure on Beijing in regional forums.
On the other hand, senior members of the foreign affairs and defense departments want the South China Sea disputes to be at the center of regional discussions. Perturbed by China's rapid construction of military facilities in the disputed waters, they want the Philippines to use the court case to push for a legally-binding code of conduct in the South China Sea.
This internal policy dissonance largely explains contradictory statements by Duterte and senior officials about the ASEAN agenda this year. So far, it is not clear whether this is part of an elaborate "good cop, bad cop" strategy by Manila. More likely, it is the explicit expression of high-stakes internal debates, which animate the battle for the soul of Philippine foreign policy.
The fluidity of the battle underscores the important role of external powers, particularly China, Japan and America, in shaping Manila's behavior. China is eager to empower Duterte and like-minded doves in Manila by offering large-scale investments and development aid, hoping to soften its position on territorial and maritime disputes.
Japan and America, meanwhile, have sought to strengthen the voice of the defense establishment by offering maritime security assistance, underlining threats posed by Beijing's maritime assertiveness, and leveraging their significant economic footprint in the Philippine economy.
Tokyo has also sought to bridge the differences between Manila and Washington, while countering China's charm offensive by offering its own big-ticket infrastructure investment package. Ultimately, the direction of Philippine foreign policy and its chairmanship of ASEAN are not set in stone, whatever Duterte may say.
Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic, columnist and author of "Asia's New Battlefield: US, China & the Struggle for the Western Pacific."