Duterte’s Geopolitical Gamble

The president has moved Philippines closer to China, but relations with US remain strong
August 2, 2018 Updated: August 7, 2018

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte came to office In 2016 with a jarring vision for his country’s geopolitical orientation: He would distance Manila from Washington and align it with Beijing. This plan was never realistic for true realignment and would be a complex undertaking beyond the power of one president.

However, Duterte has succeeded in repositioning the Philippines closer to neutral in the region’s great power dynamic. At the same time, the United States has kept a strong pull on the Philippines in ways that Duterte cannot ignore.

Where the Philippines goes from here depends on several key variables—with important consequences for the United States.

The South China Sea

The central bet that Duterte made was to set aside the South China Sea territorial dispute so that he could make the most of Chinese economic ties, while reducing the Philippines’ reliance on the United States for security.

Duterte has made three visits to China. The first was in 2016, when he publicly announced his “separation from the United States” and garnered $24 billion in loan and investment pledges from the Chinese. In 2017, he attended China’s high-profile Belt and Road Forum. Then, in April 2018, he visited the Boao economic forum, from which he brought home another $9.5 billion in investment pledges.

China’s promises, however, will take time to materialize—if ever. There is some doubt about this in the Philippines. Through 2017, Japanese companies invested 13 times more than Chinese firms in the country, and that gap grew in the first quarter of 2018. U.S. investments in the Philippines were three times larger than China’s over the same period; even Taiwan invests more.

China is the Philippines’ biggest trading partner, but it exports far more to the Philippines than it imports. Japan and the United States are bigger export markets for Filipino goods.

Beyond investment pledges, China has responded in other positive ways to Duterte’s overtures. In June and October 2017, China made high-profile deliveries of arms—mostly rifles to the Philippine police—something the United States had refused to do out of concern for victims of Duterte’s drug war.

The Chinese navy also made its first port call to the Philippines in seven years. The three-ship flotilla, which included a guided missile destroyer, called on Davao, where Duterte boarded to greet them. This is an honor he has not yet granted to any American ship to visit the Philippines.

However, for Duterte’s China formula to succeed, the Chinese regime must not only deliver on promises of economic engagement, it must moderate its behavior toward the Philippines in the South China Sea. Without this, even with economic benefits, Duterte will face a domestic backlash that may cause political problems.

Safeguarding the nation’s sovereignty is important to the Filipino electorate. Indeed,  concerns regarding the South China Sea contributed to the troubled 2001–2010 presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

China’s actions there show a mixed picture. On one hand, it has permitted Filipino fishermen access to Scarborough Shoal, in accordance—although not explicitly in compliance—with the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 ruling. On the other hand, the Chinese remain in sole control of the shoal, and its coast guard regulates access, allegedly occasionally confiscating the catch of Filipino fishing boats.

In May this year, the Philippine Navy was harassed by a Chinese helicopter during a routine replenishment mission at Second Thomas Shoal. More importantly, the Chinese installed missiles on three of the seven islands it has reclaimed in the South China Sea.

Developments such as these attract attention and aggravate anti-Chinese feeling. They have led to a growing critique of Duterte’s China policy. This, in turn, led the administration to publicly set “red lines” in the South China Sea that include reclamation or building at Scarborough Shoal, aggression against Filipino troops at Second Thomas Shoal or moving to unilaterally drill for resources in disputed areas.

The threat “to go to war” over any of these red lines isn’t credible—especially outside of rigorous coordination with the United States. Yet they are very clear markers for evaluating Chinese behavior from which it would be difficult to retreat.

War on Terror

The most significant security development in the Philippines over the past two years was the battle against Islamic militants for control of the city of Marawi, on the southern island of Mindanao. The 2017 conflict—which ended with Philippine national forces in control—claimed the lives of 165 Filipino troops and left the city in ruins. The fighting was a stark reminder of the Philippines’ vulnerability to separatist violence—and just how bloody it can be.

It was also a reminder of the importance of the U.S.–Philippines security relationship. While the United States in 2015 ended a 13-year special operations train-and-assist mission in Mindanao, in response to the fighting in Marawi, a replacement called Operation Pacific Eagle–Philippines was put in place. The new 200- to 300-person mission helped provide intelligence, surveillance, logistics, and advisers in the field.

Deployed in the midst of the conflict, its objectives are now much broader. The operation is intended to “halt and reverse the degradation of an already unstable area and prevent the southern Philippines from becoming a safe haven for terrorists.” It has no stated end date. This represents a major change of course for Duterte, who only a year earlier had demanded the departure of what was then only a handful of U.S. Special Forces personnel.

The United States donated counterterrorism equipment early in the conflict, including carbines, pistols, grenade launchers, and machine guns, as well as Cessna aircraft for surveillance. The Chinese contributed to the effort as well. There were the two arms shipments referenced above, which arrived during the fighting.

Duterte embellished the importance of those shipments by making the dubious claim that one of the Chinese sniper rifles was used to kill the terrorist ringleader in Marawi. In addition, the Chinese made modest pledges of humanitarian assistance and donated 47 pieces of heavy construction equipment to assist with the rebuilding. Now, China is front-and-center in the $1 billion competition to reconstruct Marawi. A Chinese consortium actually won the first round of the bidding process, only to be disqualified later.

Reconstruction will involve a new set of political challenges. There are initial signs of discontent among the local population about the Chinese approach. The Chinese, however, with Duterte’s assistance, have made the most of their contributions, despite distrust from the Filipino public and awareness among the ruling class that the United States was a far more consequential contributor to the victory in Marawi.

US Staying Power

Even as Duterte continues his anti-American, pro-Chinese rhetoric, the U.S.–Philippines relationship has continued without major change.

In November 2017, Duterte reaffirmed Philippine support for a 2014 agreement to allow the United States to rotate its military initially through five Philippine military bases, as well as to pre-position equipment for humanitarian and disaster-relief missions. Called the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), it also provides for the United States to upgrade Philippine base installations.

While Duterte continues to publicly express misgivings about this specific aspect of the relationship, construction began at one of the facilities—Cesar Basa Air Base on the northern island of Luzon—in April 2018.

U.S.-Philippines joint military exercises continue as well, with some adjustments to placate Manila’s new concerns regarding China. For instance, joint naval patrols in the South China Sea begun under the Obama administration have been halted. But new ones, without China-related overtones, were conducted in the Sulu Sea. Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) naval exercises were canceled, replaced by a new “Maritime Training Activity” called Sama Sama. A new exercise focused on counterterrorism and humanitarian assistance, designated as KAMANDAG, took the place of the PHILBEX amphibious landing exercises.

The alliance’s biggest annual exercise, Balikatan, took place on schedule in each of the past two years. After scaling back the size and mission in 2017, the two sides committed a total of 8,000 troops and restored live-fire and amphibious exercises in 2018. These activities are among 261 interactions the United States will have with the Philippine armed forces in 2018. There have also been frequent U.S. Navy port calls, including visits by three different aircraft carriers.

At the political level, there has been an improvement in bilateral relations. President Donald Trump and the current U.S. ambassador in Manila, Sung Kim, have gotten along much better with Duterte than their predecessors.

Whether Duterte used the change of administration in Washington as an excuse to tone down some of his rhetoric, or whether it is because the U.S. government has been less publicly critical of him lately, there seems to be a new rapport at the head-of-state level. This has given Duterte room to moderate his positions regarding the alliance.

The wild card in the relationship remains Duterte’s war on drugs. The controversial policy has resulted in the deaths of 4,000 (according to Philippine police) to 12,000 (according to human-rights activists) people. The U.S. Congress has reacted by legislating restrictions on counternarcotics assistance and otherwise pressuring the Trump administration to limit contact with the Philippine police. Thus far, its concern has largely exempted the Philippine armed forces.

Pro-American Neutrality

The most likely scenario for the Philippines is what may be caled “pro-American neutrality.” Under this scenario, both the United States and China play their cards right. The Chinese avoid provoking Duterte into rethinking his gamble or providing fodder to his domestic opponents on matters of sovereignty. Duterte wins his bet to draw in China economically, even as security needs—and pressure from the Philippine defense establishment—will require a strong relationship with the United States.

In this scenario, the Trump administration continues to refrain from high-profile public criticism of Duterte’s drug war. However, this approach could be undermined by a newly activist U.S. Congress, especially if the Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives or the Senate or new allegations surface of major abuses by the Philippine military. A possible change in the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines is another factor. Any transition will need to be managed very carefully, since Ambassador Kim has played a key stabilizing role.

If China misplays its cards and crosses any of the Philippines’ red lines, Duterte would be forced to backtrack and cool his pro-Beijing rhetoric. An armed response from the Philippines is unlikely, because Manila lacks the military wherewithal. The Philippine armed forces are incapable of major operations without U.S. backing, which is doubtful unless the country were attacked and invoked the bilateral security treaty. Even in this case, the circumstances would shape the American reaction.

Pressure will also build on Duterte’s China policy, albeit more slowly, if Beijing does not deliver on its investment promises. Duterte’s personal antipathy to the United States will make it harder to modulate his rhetoric to more traditional, pro-American positions. But military-to-military relations would quickly improve and reorient their missions to the previous focus on countering China. The government would also step up its engagement with Russia, Japan, and Australia.

Either one of these Chinese blunders would destabilize Duterte’s government. Today, he remains very popular in the Philippines. The South China Sea issue is not a central consideration for the electorate, but it is something that Filipinos care about, especially to the extent that it affects national sovereignty.

Elite opinion in the Philippines has a way of filtering down to the larger public, then changing the whole thrust of domestic politics. Suddenly, a problem that involves disputed maritime claims could become a much bigger, multifaceted political crisis for Duterte.

Walter Lohman is the director of the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. He also is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University for American foreign-policy interests in Southeast Asia and an expert for Geopolitical Intelligence Services. This article was first published by GIS Reports Online.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.