Chinese President Xi Jinping shows the way to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in a file photo. Photo: AFP

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When President Rodrigo Duterte was elected in 2016, many saw his rise as a window of strategic opportunity for China. The populist leader time and again underscored an anti-US and pro-Chinese orientation, presenting Beijing with a near golden opportunity to pull Manila out of Washington’s strategic orbit.
 
But five years on, Beijing’s rising assertiveness in the South China Sea and challenges to the Philippines’ internationally recognized maritime claims have made it practically impossible for Duterte to advance his Beijing-leaning foreign policy agenda. The Philippine defense establishment, meanwhile, is laying the groundwork for deeper US ties.
 
Asia Times correspondent Richard Javad Heydarian reported this week on ongoing negotiations to fully restore the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which facilitates the large-scale entry of US troops on Philippine soil. Duterte moved to terminate the agreement in February 2020, but its abrogation has since been delayed twice.
 
The VFA could even potentially be expanded following Duterte’s departure from office next year when his single six-year term draws to a close. With presidential aspirants like Manuel Pacquiao taking a tougher line on China, Heydarian shares his thoughts on where the Philippines may be headed in the post-Duterte era.
 
Why has Duterte’s Beijing-friendly policy appeared ultimately to have failed as bilateral tensions reach a new fever pitch?
 
The fundamental problem with Duterte’s China policy is his naïve forward-deployment of key concessions, from downplaying the 2016 arbitral tribunal award to downgrading security cooperation with the US, in exchange for a package of still unfulfilled Chinese pledges.

As a result, he squandered whatever little leverage the Philippines had in its dealing with Beijing. Duterte is already in his twilight year in office, yet he can’t even show a single big-ticket infrastructure investment by China.
 
Nor has the Asian powerhouse been any kinder in the South China Sea, where Beijing has further militarized the disputes, establishing a sprawling network of massive military bases and airstrips on contested land features, while stepping up maritime militia deployment to Philippine-claimed territories and waters in recent years.

This photo taken by the Philippine Coast Guard shows Chinese vessels anchored at the Whitsun Reef 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza in Palawan in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP

In retrospect, this was a predictable disaster: Duterte was a provincial mayor throughout much of his political career, so when he became the president, he suddenly found himself straddling high-stakes geopolitical fault lines, which clearly overwhelmed both his imagination and instincts.

Meanwhile, it didn’t help that he largely surrounded himself with mostly yes-men and former factotums, who were either just as clueless about the sweet science of foreign policy and 21st-century diplomacy, or rarely dared to confront his strategic delusions.
 
What would a renewed VFA mean for the situation in the South China Sea, especially if a more US-friendly Philippine administration is elected in 2022. How would the US likely leverage the agreement to bolster its position vis-a-vis China?
 
As I have written throughout the years, Duterte is powerful in setting domestic policies, especially his controversial drug war, but in terms of foreign policy he has never enjoyed unilateral power. He has had to repeatedly contend with multiple veto-players, including the Chinese-Filipino business community as well as the powerful defense establishment.
 
This largely explained the contradictory statements not only from Duterte’s cabinet, but from the president himself, a consummate politico who has had to repeatedly recalibrate his rhetoric in response to the broader balance of forces, including public opinion, which has remained largely skeptical of China and still favorable towards the US.
 
The VFA renewal, or alternatively the renewal of the suspension of abrogation of the defense deal until the end of Duterte’s term next year, will go some way in ensuring there is a semblance of continuity in Philippine-US security cooperation and military interoperability.

But I think the emerging consensus among experts is that what is needed is a VFA-Plus agreement, whereby the two allies can significantly ramp up their maritime security cooperation in response to the growing threat from China.

US and Philippine Marines carry their respective colors at the formal opening of the annual Philippine-US Amphibious Landing Exercises aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard which docked at the former US naval base of Subic on October 8, 2012. Photo: AFP/Jay Directo

One major setback for the Philippine-US alliance, for instance, is Duterte’s veto against the full implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which was supposed to facilitate prepositioning of American weapons and rotational presence of troops across key bases close to the South China Sea.

As a result, the century-old alliance is operating at a suboptimal level just as China ramps up its military footprint in adjacent waters. That imbalance is costing the Philippines dearly in terms of deterring further encroachment into its waters.
 
Would presidential aspirant Manuel Pacquiao likely be more pro-China or pro-US in his foreign policy and posture in South China Sea? Are there any particularly US or China-friendly viable candidates on the horizon?
 
I think the Philippines will never be the same after Duterte, for obvious reasons, and this also applies to the realm of foreign policy.

In fairness to the Filipino populist, he has raised some legitimate concerns over America’s reliability as an ally, although his arguments are dated and more applicable to the Obama days of strategic reticence and dithering vis-à-vis China. Things have obviously changed dramatically since Trump and also under Biden, both of whom have taken a far tougher stance in the South China Sea and against China.
 
So my sense is Duterte has shifted the foreign policy debate towards a more transactional register, thus even centrist and liberal successors will likely try to project more “independence” and pragmatism in dealing with the US, a major break from decades of strategic subservience under Duterte’s predecessors.

By the same token, even if Duterte’s allies, or even daughter were to win, I doubt they will be as rhetorically slavish and strategically naïve vis-à-vis China. So, I am cautiously optimistic that the Duterte disruption, as in the Trumpian precedent in Washington, will bring a degree of greater maturity to Philippine strategic culture.