Duterte’s Double Play with China and the US

Malacañang Photo Bureau, public domain

A new dawn for Philippine-China relations was said to have taken place nearly six months ago when Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte met with China’s Zhang Jianhua in Davao in early June 2016. Their talks represented a major departure from the attitude taken toward China by the Aquino government, which steered the country for six years. Jianhua recently spoke of the sun “shin[ing] beautifully on a new chapter of bilateral relations.”

Before Duterte whisked his way into office, the Philippines filled the spot for the fastest economic growth in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region. Then, nobody really knew what to make of Duterte’s economic policy and his economic aims for the country. That course become much clearer during the second half of 2016, most notably over the past week given Duterte’s trip to Beijing to cozy-up even further to Xi Jinpiang like a lovestruck schoolgirl.

Like a petulant child, Duterte renounced Washington, calling Barack Obama a “son of a bitch” and describing America’s ambassador as a “gay son of a whore.” Washington, among others sharply criticized Duterte’s nasty “kill them all” style war on drugs throughout the Philippines. Duterte’s statements and attitude coincided with calls for ending joint American-Filipino military operations and training, and a ban on US warship maneuvers and patrols in the Philippines’ territorial waters.

So, what is Duterte up to? His alleged pivot seems inherengly disingenuous, an attempt to play both ends against the middle. His aims strike one as remaining staunchly economic with military goals, rather than principally military in purpose. There is also reason to question the substance of Duterte’s pronounced “seperation” from the United States (US).

Duterte’s rhetoric though, made his intentions fairly evident, asserting that to ‘get the guns he needs’ he would turn to Russia and like-states – essentially anyone willing to sell him the armaments he needs to meet his domestic political objectives and to vamp up the military capacity that’s critical for achieving his foreign policy aims. His trip to China, however, was a bold move that might have brought him further in meeting his economic objectives, but at the expense of his closest ally the United States.

Saying “good-bye” to Washington, Duterte has set out on a path to build a rosy new relationship with China after years of horn-locked tension between Beijing and Manila. For China, the situation surrounding the South China Sea dispute has became a bit clearer. For Washington, Duterte’s actions have called for quick and decisive damage control (or a patient waiting-game). For the Philippines, the country’s economic course has received a healthy dose of stability, but one that could end-up being Duterte’s five minutes of glory.

It should come as no surprise that Duterte retains a self-styled loathing for the US, supported by hatred for the US felt by Filipinos, who see their country as a colony historically squeezed by Washington’s longstanding rule.

In 1965, Indonesia’s President Suharto carried out a drug war using patriotic and nationalistic discourse. He put forth the principles of PANCASILA, namely: (1) One God; (2) Civilized Humanity; (3) Unity; (4) Consultative Democracy; and, (5) Social Justice. Similarly, immediately after his rise to office in June 2016, Duterte launched an all-out war on drugs using patriotic and nationalistic discourse. Duterte espouses the New Filipinism of the late-President Ferdinand Marcos, which means no more clinging to the West.

The principles of Filipinism are as follows: (1) One God – the merger of nationalism, religion and communism where religious cultism is fostered; (2) Unity – the adoption of an independent foreign policy; (3) Civilized Humanity – the promotion of distinct Filipino values such as respect for elders; (4) Democratic Consultation – the implementation of regular consultation with Indigenous Peoples and Bangsamoro Groups as well as the formation of a coalition of nationalist and patriotic officers; (5) Social Justice – the promotion of full-scale industrialization such as railway development and the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) Program to uplift the poor. Duterte is a National Democratic Front (NDF) member who adopts an anti-imperialist and an anti-American stance.

There are efforts to revisit the “Golden Age” of Philippine-China relations where Chinese Overseas Development assistance reached $800 million USD. Both countries have expressed interest in pushing through with their bilateral talks. The main caveat: (1) No one is obliged to yield any territory; (2) No territory will be taken from any country; and (3) The two countries will focus on functional areas of cooperation encompassing people-to-people exchange, scholarships for Filipinos, cultural exchange, and counterterrorism cooperation.

The Philippines further hopes to be included in the  One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative of China. The Philippines is now meeting the requirements to fulfil its commitment to be part of the Asia Investments and Infrastructure Bank (AIIB) so as to be able to access infrastructure funding. For the time-being, Duterte’s initatives and adventures in China offer-up the impression that he is devoted to economic development for his country – this remains his priority even in his wider, regional policies.

Yet Duterte’s visit to China and his supposedly warm embrace of China strikes as being misinformed and misinforming. Over the long-term, his actions will likely translate into heightened instability for the whole region and those involved, including the China and the US. Duterte appears to be acting on his interest to make the Philippines less reliant on external assistance (in this case from the US) and puruse a freer, more autonomous foreign policy. It is a poorly-calculated gamble.

His sentiments about foreign assistance was shared by others in his government, notably, Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana, who said, “I think we can live without [that] aid. Our Congress is actually giving us money now for the procurement of equipment. I believe they will give us more if we don’t have a source of other funds.” In this, turning away from the US is essentially a (partial) turn from the European Union (EU).

The calculation is likely as simple as looking for the biggest spender. So does this mean that Duterte found his new “sugar daddy?” Does he even need one? The Philippines is a country of some 101 million people, a country comprising of thousands of islands, an uninspiring GDP per capita, and a dreary military budget. It also boasts one of the longest ongoing civil conflicts consisting of a dual insurgency and ongoing counterterrorism operations against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Abu Sayyaf, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), Khalifa Islamiyah Mindanao, and the Maute Group. This is a tall order for any state to handle.

Manila’s military budget spending has risen slightly since 2014, which then stood at a meagre $2.6 billion USD whereas China’s stood at a whopping $132 billion that same year. Due to its current domestic problems and a need to focus more of its attention on the South China Sea dispute, Duterte is likely acting on a combination of misapprehension and desperation fuelled by the demands that will increasingly fall on Manila in the near and distant future, and Duterte’s personal ambitions as opposed to party are country consensus.

Despite praiseworthy attempts by the current and previous governments at force-modernization, the Philippines military has a long way to go and still has to contend with a major lag in its budgets from previous years. Decades of poor funding has left the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in tatters with even greater logistical challenges placed on it. A few years after Bush’s “War on Terror” (WoT) took stage, Manila was jet-fighter-less, and sailed just one small warship dating back to the days when US marines were “island-hopping” all over the Pacific.

It is probably apt to claim that Manila is not at all prepared to fight for its interests in the South China Sea dispute given its limited and already stretched resources and lacklustre military spending capacity. Incapable at present of deterring even the most miniscule of military adventurism, it is fitting to apply the age-old adage, “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

It should come as no surprise that Duterte retains a self-styled loathing for the US, supported by hatred for the US felt by Filipinos, who see their country as a colony historically squeezed by Washington’s longstanding rule (though we should not forget that a lot of Filipinos have always been very pro-American). However, we might question whether Duterte is actually aware of how much he needs Washington’s support despite his abhorrence for his former ally’s actions over the course of many decades and indeed over a century ago.

The longevity of Duterte’s new crush will probably depend on who is able and willing to put more money in the Philippines’ purse. In 2015, Manila received some $40 million USD from Washington, and $50 million USD the year before that. If Beijing can outmatch those numbers, which is probably what Duterte’s is betting on, he will likely maintain his course in this new relationship with Beijing.

Resources have also come from one of the Washington’s closet allies in East Asia – South Korea – who sent FA-50 Golden Eagle fighter aircraft to the Philippine Air Force (PAF) in 2015. A turn away from Washington could see other sources of support dwindle, and the millions of dollars in military support does not include other forms of valuable military aid already received. Whether Beijing is ready to start sending military equipment to Manila remains both highly speculative and questionable.

Still, Duterte’s decision might also be based on the calculus that if he continues to shun the US then Washington might shower the Philippines with even more funding, aid, and equipment in an attempt to win back its fly-by-night ally – two is better than one!

For now, Beijing is perhaps comfortable flirting with Manila on the political front but hesitant to make any hard commitments leading to the transference of sophisticated weaponry and other forms of aid. Duterte, however, has set the Philippines up for a nearly-impossible military transition, in terms of force modernization, readiness for possible state-on-state conflict in the South China Sea, more capable counterinsurgency operations within its own difficult-to-defend/manage territory, and higher demands that will be placed on its military personal as the AFP transitions to more advanced weapons systems at full tilt.

As the year draws to a close, Duterte has impulively taken the Philippines beyond the comfortable confines of being in an alliance with the US and its strong/rich friends and allies. Through his deparutre, he has moved his country into highly uncertain and volitile territory in the form of partnership with China that has so far offered no real guarantees for the still-developing country.

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