Duterte’s Domestic Political Grip Lessens Unpredictability of Philippine Foreign Policy

By Monica Michiko Sato —

President Rodrigo Duterte shakes hands with Secretary of State Michael Pompeo during a bilateral meeting in Manila, Philippines on February 28, 2019. Source: U.S. Government Work, public domain.

Since assuming office in 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte has been under the scrutiny of the international community not only for his unconventional politicking style, but also for his unpredictable policies. Given the often-contradicting statements from the Department of Defense, Department of Foreign Affairs, and the Office of the President, it seems like Philippine policies thus far have been contingent on the mood of the Philippine president. Despite these policies, he has successfully performed a balancing act between China and the United States. On one hand, he has welcomed Chinese investments, approximately $24 billion in 2018, for infrastructure development. On the other, he has allowed the U.S. Air Force to “rotate its air assets – fighters, transport, surveillance and refueling planes and perhaps bombers” in Clark Air Base, which is near strategic flashpoints of the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, following the 2019 Bilateral Air Contingent Exchange-Philippines.

Last year, President Duterte’s foreign policy seemed to favor strengthening the Philippines’ relationship with China, expressing the need for investment for “Build! Build! Build!”, his major infrastructure project, and the rehabilitation of Marawi. During President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to the Philippines in November 2018, the two signed 29 agreements, including a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on Joint Oil and Gas Exploration in the South China Sea, which is currently in its initial planning stages, and an MOU on the Belt and Road Initiative. Moreover, on December 2018, Philippine defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana called for a review of the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), questioning its significance in the changing security environment of the region and clarifying uncertainties of the U.S.’ security guarantee.

Surprisingly, President Duterte has taken a stronger stand against China at the outset of 2019. The Department of Foreign Affairs dismissed the presence of Chinese ships in Thitu Island (called Pag-asa Island by the Philippines) as “illegal” and “a clear violation of Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction” while President Duterte himself warned China that he will “prepare for suicide missions” should it press further action on the island. More recently, President Duterte stated during the Nikkei International Forum on the Future of Asia in May 2019, “I love China, it has helped us a bit but it behooves upon us to ask, is it right for a country to claim the whole ocean?”

Despite confusion caused by the vacillating policies of President Duterte, the results of the May 2019 midterm elections were evidence of his success and popularity. The majority of the candidates who won the competing 12 Senate seats, 200 Congressional seats, and over 18,000 provincial seats, are supported by the administration. Given that the success of his campaign was his platform of aksyon (action), the ability of the administration to prompt more concrete actions from the United States — and concurrently, impede the progress on the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement under former president Benigno Aquino III — has provided the Filipino public with a stark contrast from previous, liberal administrations.

In response to Secretary Lorenzana’s call for the MDT review, U.S. secretary of state Michael Pompeo elaborated that, “any armed attack on any Philippine forces, aircraft, or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our Mutual defense treaty.” During the 18th Shangri La Dialogue, acting U.S. secretary of defense Patrick Shanahan gave a clearer stance on the U.S. position on the South China Sea. In terms of grand strategy, the United States released its inaugural Indo-Pacific Strategy on June 2019. It states that “the continuity of our shared strategic vision” was interrupted by China and that the United States will “compete, deter, and win in this environment” through “combining a more lethal Joint Force with a more robust constellation of Allies and partners.” Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo showed support for these actions, stating that, “the Philippines would want stability in this part of the world, in that part of the world. The Philippine 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.”

Additionally, on June 9, 2019, a Chinese vessel sank an anchored Philippine vessel (FB Gimver 1) from Occidental Mindoro in the South China Sea, putting the lives of 22 Filipino fishermen in danger. The Department of Defense made an official statement on June 12, 2019, which incidentally is Philippine Independence Day, in which Secretary Lorenzana condemned, “in the strongest terms the cowardly action of the Chinese fishing vessel and its crew for abandoning the Filipino crew,” and called for a formal investigation on the collision and requested that diplomatic action be taken against China.

Although these events are promising for Washington, it is too soon to tell whether this optimistic attitude will lead to the Philippines “hedging” in favor of the United States. However, Philippine foreign policy may no longer be as unpredictable as policymakers may think. When the opposition coalition, Otso Diretso, failed to win any of the 12 Senatorial seats up for grabs during the midterm elections, it ironically disrupted the unpredictability of Philippine foreign policy by granting little to no dissent in the policymaking process. Thus, the focus of the Philippines’ grand strategy can be illustrated by the following points:

  1. With little to no opposition within the incoming Houses of Congress, domestic issues will continue to drive its foreign policy. President Duterte will thus have to maintain a relatively warm relationship with China, given that his priorities include infrastructure development, tax reform, and the constitutional shift towards federalism.
  2. Nevertheless, despite having a claim on Scarborough Shoal (called Panatag Shoal by the Philippines), the Philippine government can be ensured to have a tough stand on Thitu Island. The presence of over a hundred Filipino civilians, a medical center, and municipal hall on the island has prompted President Duterte to fortify the island by building bunkers and military structures.
  3. The failure of the opposition to “create a new narrative for Philippine politics,” as political analyst Arjan Aguirre notes, will see the continuity of the administration’s policies. Much of the administration’s policies are rooted in President Duterte’s populist politics, better known as Dutertismo, and will continue in that vein.

The last three years of the Duterte administration have proven that President Duterte is fully aware of what he must do to allow the Philippines to make the most of its position in the Indo-Pacific region. With the Philippines being a small power amid two rivaling powers in the South China Sea, President Duterte will likely continue playing the balance of power game between the United States and China in the South China Sea. As a result, the current rhetoric of the Duterte administration and the trajectory of Philippine foreign policy is much more predictable than ever before.

Ms. Monica Michiko Sato is a research intern with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.

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