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Duterte’s China strategy is hurting us

In his first few months in office, President Duterte surprised the world with an erratic approach to international relations. But, despite the foul rhetoric virtually unheard of among diplomatic circles, his apologists were quick to proclaim that this was part of an elaborate plan to put us strategically between the two major powers, China and the US, instead of taking one side. They called it having an “independent foreign policy,” which supposedly means managing our foreign affairs free from undue influence by another country and with our best interests in mind as a sovereign nation.

Not that it comes as a surprise, but this has turned out to be a dangerous farce, with a bellicose Mr. Duterte at the helm. Not only did we compromise our relations with Western nations, we have also eroded our credibility in many respects, including the ability to engage our international friends and partners with civility. The President singlehandedly pulled the nation down to the gutter with him with his rhetoric, while supporters fanatically applauded him for it. That we lost face and became a global laughingstock aren’t even the worst of it.

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I remember the late Dr. Aileen Baviera, the country’s foremost Sinologist whom we recently lost to COVID-19: Informed by Southeast Asia’s complex history in dealing with great powers, Dr. Baviera was also wary of the Philippines taking sides between the US and China. She advocated for the country to find its “own middle ground,” a goal that we could have achieved had we followed a genuine independent foreign policy.

Building on Baviera’s thoughts, I argue that this middle position cannot be built on unfair grounds where China does not abide by the same rules. It cannot also prosper without resolving the strategic distrust between the two parties.

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The Duterte administration’s ill-conceived bilateral strategy was sure to do more harm than good because it proceeded without ensuring the two factors were present. In addition, the hasty about-face against previous gains on the West Philippine Sea issue undermined our position as a claimant and eroded the capacity of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to shape outcomes as a regional bloc.

No matter what policy track we follow, whether multilateral or bilateral, we need to understand that this elusive middle ground can only be secured in good faith and through mutual respect. But this was something the President himself made impossible with careless pronouncements emphasizing China’s economic and military ascendance over the Philippines, and raising the specter of war to fight off critics, even though violent conflict was never officially suggested by past governments or experts on our side.

Adding insult to injury, Mr. Duterte has hinted at more intimate relations with the Chinese government. In May 2018, for instance, he confidently declared that China would not allow him to be ousted, suggesting that the Chinese state has influence over our domestic politics to a degree that can directly benefit the current administration. This further undermines the country’s position and scrapes away the thinly veiled hypocrisy that we have an independent foreign policy.

Baviera warned that we should not be a pendulum that strikes too often and too far within two extremes. But Mr. Duterte has proven to be a wrecking ball, swinging so hard in China’s direction that he has virtually broken the clock.

All may not be lost for us, but there’s no telling how many years it would take to recover lost ground. This includes repairing our relations with erstwhile good partners in the West who have now more reason to skip the Philippines in their investment decisions. Meanwhile, the Chinese are wasting no time capitalizing on their gains as they build more structures in our territories.

Come 2022, this is one of the perverse legacies of the Duterte administration that I hope we won’t forget.

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Kevin Mandrilla completed his MA in Asian Studies at the UP Diliman-Asian Center. He works as a proposal manager for a technology firm.

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TAGS: China strategy, Commentary, Kevin Mandrilla, PH-China relations, Rodrigo Duterte
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