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Duterte’s foreign policy: Leaning toward China, altering regional order

[Editor’s Note: President Rodrigo Duterte will deliver his third State of the Nation Address (Sona) on July 23. The Inquirer looks back at promises he made in Sona 2016 and Sona 2017, and how he and his administration acted on those promises. We will also look at major issues that marked his two years in office in our #Sona2018 series, which begins today.]

In his second State of the Nation Address (Sona), President Duterte projected himself as the harbinger of a new era in the country’s external relations.

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After a century of strategic subservience, Mr. Duterte subtly implied, the Philippines was now finally a confident, self-reliant and proudly defiant nation.

The past year, however, saw Mr. Duterte gradually moving away from a sensible strategy of equilateral balancing, aligning with neither America nor China, toward a precarious policy of “strategic leaning” in favor of Beijing.

Thus, Mr. Duterte has single-handedly reshuffled the regional geopolitical order by seeking to shift the Philippines from one geopolitical camp to the other.

Like a Nehruvian speech

The principle of “noninterference” stood at the heart of Mr. Duterte’s speech, largely explaining the roller-coaster trajectory of his foreign policy in the past year.

His speech had broader global implications, precisely because it came at the time of the Philippines’ chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

In some ways, it was a Nehruvian speech, extolling the virtues of a self-assured post-colonial nation, which will no longer toe any superpower’s line, but instead remain master of its own faith and captain of its own strategic soul.

The country, according to the Commander in Chief, will “pursue good relations with all nations anchored on an independent foreign policy” that follows the “basic tenets of sovereign equality, mutual respect and noninterference.”

In overseeing an “independent nation,” Mr. Duterte explained, “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.”

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Listening to Mr. Duterte at the time, I could imagine the mid-20th century scions of the so-called “nonaligned movement”—Sukarno (Indonesia), Nasser (Egypt) and Nehru (India)—echoing similar rhetoric.

Criticism has consequence

Thus, Mr. Duterte was seemingly traversing a long-paved ideological track. Within seconds, however, it became clear that his brand of “nonaligned” foreign policy was one that tilted toward and slightly leaned on China at the expense of traditional alliances.

He celebrated “cultivat[ing] warmer relations with China through bilateral dialogues,” which has led to “easing of tensions between the two countries and improved negotiating environment on the West Philippine Sea.”

Shortly after, however, he shifted gears, lambasting the United States and the European Union for criticizing his human rights record and war on drugs. In the case of America, the Philippines’ only treaty ally and former colonial master, he spared few expletives.

Mr. Duterte stretched across the arc of history, passionately citing the dispute over the Balangiga bell and the long-forgotten history of American atrocities against Filipinos at the turn of the 20th century.

His message was clear: Criticize my signature policies and you will pay a strategic price.

A new strategic patron

With that speech, he set the stage for his chairmanship of the Asean, which culminated in the November summit in Manila, where global leaders, including US President Donald Trump, were in attendance.

The event served as a crucial opportunity for Mr. Duterte to lift the veil of diplomatic isolation and relish the embrace of superpowers, including Western nations.

Under Mr. Duterte’s chairmanship, the Asean turned into a useful shield for China to deflect international criticism of its South China Sea policy. To Beijing’s delight, Mr. Duterte refused to raise the Philippines’ arbitration award against China, downplayed its relevance and, crucially, maintained that the disputes were “better left untouched” by international powers.

Never mind that China has accelerated its reclamation activities in the South China Sea, expanded its military presence even in the Benham Rise area, occupied the Scarborough Shoal and several features in the Kalayaan Group of Islands, and directly challenged Manila’s claim over trillions of dollars of resources in the West Philippine Sea.

Showing the love to China

But Mr. Duterte seems pleased with China, which has offered all-out political support for his antinarcotics campaign at various international fora. Without a sense of irony, China has presented itself as the defender of the Philippines’ “sovereignty” against external interference in its domestic affairs.

A grateful Mr. Duterte, accordingly, has never failed to express his “love” for Chinese leaders, jests about the Philippines becoming a “province” of China, and proudly calls on smaller countries to be “meek” and “humble” in exchange for Chinese “mercy.”

No wonder, too, that he downplays the Chinese harassment of Filipino fishermen in Scarborough Shoal as “barter” trade, and dismisses the strategic implications of China’s weaponization of Philippine-claimed land features.

In recent months, China has deployed, for the first time, nuclear bombers, surface-to-air missiles, anticruise-ballistic missiles, and electronic jamming equipment to disputed features in the South China Sea.

Despite its huge promises of investments in the Philippines, China has been consistently out-invested by Manila’s traditional allies—Japan, Europe and America. We are yet to see a single big-ticket Chinese infrastructure project on the ground.

To the President, however, China still remains a trustworthy and reliable friend. After all, Beijing never criticizes his domestic politics. The principle of noninterference seems to be the ultimate pivot of Mr. Duterte’s foreign policy.

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TAGS: Inquirer Commentary, Richard Heydarian, Rodrigo Duterte, Sona, State of the Nation Address
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