President Rodrigo Duterte's needs Chinese financing to build the US$4 billion Mindanao Railway. Photo: Reuters/Wu Hong
President Rodrigo Duterte's needs Chinese financing to build the US$4 billion Mindanao Railway. Photo: Reuters/Wu Hong

Entering his third year in office, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte faces a rising uproar over his increasingly contested foreign policy, with different political factions pulling the country in opposed geopolitical directions.

Duterte has gradually abandoned the country’s policy of equilateral balancing vis-à-vis great powers, namely by refusing to overtly side with America or China, in favor of a strategic leaning towards Beijing.

As the controversial leader faces growing international isolation over his human rights record and scorched-earth drug war, Duterte has found a reliable strategic patron in Beijing, which has offered unconditional diplomatic, political and developmental support.

At the same time, the country’s defense establishment and media-intelligentsia complex clearly prefers to maintain robust security ties with America and remains skeptical of China’s ultimate intentions.

As a result, the nation’s foreign policy has become increasingly unpredictable, erratic and fluid, with no clear direction in the coming year. Duterte will give his third State of Nation Address (SONA) this month, an address his spokesmen say will “come from the heart” and independent analysts will parse for indications of his next policy moves.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, October 20, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter

Much will depend on Duterte’s ability to arrive at a mutually agreed modus vivendi with Beijing on fast rising tensions in the contested South China Sea, as well as on the scale of China’s promised massive investments in the Philippines.

In his second SONA last July, Duterte presented himself as the champion of a new era of self-confidence and defiance in Philippine foreign policy.

Channeling the mid-20th century Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the Filipino leader delivered an impassioned Nehruvian speech, underscoring the need for the nation to master its own destiny in a world dominated by Eastern and Western superpowers.

After a century of strategic subservience to the West, Duterte argued, the Philippines has finally become a truly “independent nation” under his watch.

In the same speech, Duterte promised to “pursue good relations with all nations anchored on an independent foreign policy” which follows the “basic tenets of sovereign equality, mutual respect and non-interference.”

Duterte assured his citizens that he “we will uphold and promote our national interests in the international community” by “strengthen[ing] and seek[ing] partnership with those who share our values.”

To Duterte, an “independent” foreign policy means brooking no criticism from outside powers in domestic affairs, particularly his scorched-earth war on drugs, which rights groups claim has taken as many as 12,000 lives in the past two years.

Police torches lights up the body of a suspected drug dealer, killed by two men on motorcycles in Quezon City, Manila. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

The government denies the figure is that high, though concerns are rising the campaign is entering a dangerous new phase with the unexplained assassinations of two provincial mayors this week.

The government also this week detained then deported an American Christian missionary who was reportedly involved in “political” activities. Duterte earlier ordered the expulsion of an Australian Catholic nun who had spoken out critically of his drug war.

It’s precisely within this context that Duterte has strongly gravitated towards China as his ultimate strategic patron.

During his SONA speech, Duterte happily underscored “cultivat[ing] warmer relations with China through bilateral dialogues”, claiming they had led to an “easing of tensions between the two countries and improved negotiating environment” in the South China Sea.

Soon thereafter, the tough-talking leader proceeded to lambast Western allies, including the United States and the European Union, for “interfering” in Philippine domestic affairs.

Duterte even unleashed a flurry of resentment against America for its cruel treatment of Filipinos at the turn of the 20th century when it colonized the country.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at a press conference on his drug war at Malacanang palace in Manila, January 30, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Ezra Acayan

In many ways, the speech provided an accurate portrait of his strategic mindset, namely the centrality of non-interference in his hierarchy of strategic needs.

In contrast to the West, Duterte sees China as a supportive partner, which has offered all-out diplomatic and logistical assistance for his controversial drug war.

Whether in the United Nations or any other multilateral fora, Beijing has repeatedly called on the international community to respect the Philippines’ sovereignty vis-à-vis Duterte’s domestic policies.

In exchange, a visibly grateful Duterte has incessantly expressed his “love” for Chinese leaders, particularly President Xi Jinping, and even once quipped about the Philippines becoming a “province” of China.

He has consistently presented China as his personal ‘protector’ against domestic threats, including alleged coup plots by opposition members, while enjoining smaller nations to be “meek” and “humble” in order to receive China’s “mercy.”

During the Philippines’ chairmanship last year of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Duterte told the international community that the South China Sea disputes are “better left untouched”, reiterating China’s call for bilateral rather than multilateral negotiations.

He has also repeatedly downplayed China’s accelerated reclamation activities in and militarization of Philippine-claimed land features in the South China Sea, including the deployment of surface-to-air-missiles, anti-cruise ballistic missiles, and electronic jamming equipment to the Spratly chain of islands.

Navy personnel of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea April 12, 2018.  Photo: Reuters/Stringer

Duterte has also been dismissive of Chinese harassment of Filipino fishermen straddling the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal. He controversially described extortion of Filipino fishermen’s precious catch in exchange for expired noodles and cheap cigarettes as “barter” trade.

And yet, as Duterte enters his third year in office, he is yet to exercise full subjective control over the defense establishment, which remains suspicious of China and has gradually revived defense cooperation with America.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has repeatedly reiterated its “constitutional duties” to defend the Philippines’ sovereign claims in the South China Sea, while the Philippine mainstream media, influential statesmen and leading opinion-makers have raised critical questions about Duterte’s true motivations for embracing China.

That intensifying friction means the Philippines is still far from fully aligned with China, as Duterte and other influential actors continue to jostle for direction and soul of Philippine foreign policy. Whether Duterte signals a move back towards the center in his foreign policy in his third SONA speech is yet to be seen.

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