Student activists in the Philippines protest against both China and the United States equally. Photo: Facebook

As US-China rivalry boils ever hotter in the contested South China Sea, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte finds himself on the horns of a high stakes strategic dilemma.

While largely defining his three-year-old tenure through anti-Western tirades and drawing closer to China, the Philippine leader is now sending signals he is willing to recalibrate that balance by revitalizing defense ties to the United States.

In a June 8 interview with local media, Duterte said he was willing to reconsider his government’s bilateral relations with the US because he “likes” President Donald Trump.

While visiting China four times since taking office in mid-2016, including for last month’s Belt and Road Forum, Duterte has yet to travel to the US despite a previous and apparently still standing invitation to visit Trump’s White House. Chinese president Xi Jinping made a high-profile visit to Manila with promises of big investments last November.

Duterte has frequently alleged the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is trying to topple his elected government in cahoots with local groups, including media outlets like Rappler, though without providing any evidence of such a plot.

What’s nominally bringing the two longtime treaty allies back together are shared and rising concerns about Islamic terrorism. In early June, Washington deployed senior officials to Manila to discuss expanded counterterrorism cooperation.

US President Donald Trump and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at the ASEAN Summit in Manila in November 2017. Photo: Twitter

Denise Natali, US assistant secretary of state for conflict and stabilization, wrote in a tweet afterward that both sides held “productive meetings with our Philippines partners on countering violent extremism and supporting our enduring alliance.”

No details were released on any new agreed initiatives, though counterterrorism has been the bedrock of the two sides’ defense relations since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US. The local Abu Sayyaf militant group developed ties with al-Qaeda and is now aligned with Islamic State.

Washington is now apparently trying to leverage terrorism risks to revitalize otherwise faltering strategic ties at a time the Philippines is at the geographical center of a possible conflict with China over the South China Sea.

In a new Indo-Pacific Strategy report released on June 1, the US underscored how it has been “a significant partner to the Philippines in building counterterrorism capacity.”

At the height of Islamic State-aligned groups’ siege of the southern Philippine city of Marawi in 2017, Washington provided crucial assistance to Philippine security forces, including urban warfare training, real-time intelligence-sharing and high-grade weapons transfers.

Duterte acknowledged America’s support at the time but soon thereafter returned to his combative anti-US tone. China also offered firearms for Philippine forces during the siege and has since offered to help with the ruined city’s reconstruction, though to controversial effect.

In an extensive June 8 interview with a local media network in his home city of Davao, Duterte said he was now considering the purchase of new American armaments.

A US Navy member (left) gives instructions to his Filipino counterpart during drills at a naval base in Sangley Point, Cavite City, west of Manila on June 28, 2013. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

“In the purchase of arms, we have a bad experience but they have a new policy now,” Duterte said referring to the US. “We are going to reconsider,” he said, though without clarifying what “new policy” he was referring to.

The US has announced in recent weeks plans to sell armaments to allies in the region in a policy clearly aimed at counterbalancing China’s rising influence in Southeast Asia.

In typical flip-flop fashion, Duterte had just days previously lambasted Washington for not honoring earlier arms deals. In 2016, the US Congress blocked the planned sale of some 26,000 assault rifles to the Philippine National Police over concerns of human-rights abuses in Duterte’s lethal “war on drugs,” which has killed thousands of drug suspects.

The Philippine president appears to be implying that the Trump administration is now willing to take a softer line on human-rights issues and proceed with the sale of advanced-grade rifles to security forces explicitly for counterterrorism purposes.

“We’ll buy [guns] if we think we need that kind of [armament],” he said. “I like Trump and I would like to assure America that we will not do anything to hinder, hamper or whatever [bilateral] cooperation,” he said.

“We are ready to cooperate, but this I have to say: I will not go to war with anybody,” Duterte added, rhetorically reiterating his unwillingness to side with the US against China or its other regional rivals.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) gestures as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (right) looks on during a state banquet at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila on November 20, 2018. Photo: AFP/Mark R Cristino/Pool

After downgrading joint US-Philippine war games early in his tenure, Duterte has more recently allowed exercises to return to previous levels. In one recent joint maneuver, US and Philippine forces even simulated retaking an occupied island, a shot across China’s bow in light of its occupation of the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal.

Sino-American tensions have reached a dangerous new level, with the Trump administration imposing tariffs and targeting major Chinese technology companies on national-security grounds.

At the same time, Trump’s government has approved as much as US$2 billion in weapons sales to Taiwan and stepped up its “freedom of navigation” (FONOP) patrols and overflight operations in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait in a direct challenge to Beijing.

That has put the wider region on edge of a possible clash, concerns that were underscored by China’s combative, uncompromising rhetoric at the recently held Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

The Philippines, which has adopted a “one China policy,” has proactively steered clear of America’s rising tensions with China over Taiwan. Manila has also declined categorically to support America’s FONOPs in the contested maritime area, despite China recently swarming its claimed features, including the strategic Thitu Island, with paramilitary forces.

Duterte has vacillated between provocative and dovish rhetoric toward China on the disputes. But it’s a middle line his officials are finding increasingly difficult to navigate.

Duterte’s spokesman Salvador Panelo said this month that the Philippines “would want stability in this part of the world” and that its “position is that every country has a right to use the waters in the South China Sea as well as the airspace. And we want peace and quiet in that area. So anything that will provide such kind of atmosphere, we are for it.”

“If the presence of the US will make it so, then that’s good for us – all of the claimants,” the presidential spokesman said, offering only lukewarm support to US FONOP efforts to avoid piquing Beijing.

Tensions between the US and Russia have also spiked in the region, as both powers expand their naval footprints in the Western Pacific. On June 7, the USS Chancellorsville cruiser and Russia’s Pacific Fleet warship Admiral Vinogradov almost collided in the East China Sea.

The two warships came as close as 50 meters, allegedly forcing the Russian vessel to perform “emergency maneuvering” to avoid a direct collision. Both sides claimed the other was to blame for the near collision. Russia and China are increasingly aligned against the US, with the two sides staging massive joint war games in Russia’s Far East last year.

Duterte has said he wants to steer the Philippines clear of all great-power rivalries, even as a mutual defense treaty ally of the US. “You do not have to praise China and side with [China against] America,” he said in the interview.

“We will go along with our alliances but to me China and Russia are not enemies because what the Americans failed to deliver [in arms], that was the time I went to Russia, [and later] only to ask [Chinese] President Xi Jinping to give me a credit line because I have no money [to purchase weapons],” he said.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte inspects an automatic rifle at Clark Air Base, near Angeles City, on June 28, 2017. Photo: Twitter

“When we needed in the hour of our need, Russia and China gave it to us practically free. To this day, they have not even asked for even one penny as payment,” Duterte said.

“They have not asked a military alliance. They have not asked for special favors to operate in this country, unlike the Americans,” Duterte added, adding that the Philippines has no plans for new treaty alliances under his leadership. “I’m a Filipino. I have to have a sense of gratitude, at least honor the contract. Nothing else.”

Duterte clearly believes the Philippines’ best course of action is to derive maximum benefits from all powers, while avoiding alignment with any one against another.

But as US-China tensions rise to new dangerous levels and US-Russia rivalry intensifies in the region, it will be an increasingly hard balance for Duterte to maintain.

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