In Search of an Independent China Policy in Post-Duterte Philippines

Rodrigo Duterte, CC Flickr, Casino Connection, Modified,

“The enemy, too has a vote!” said the late strategist Colin Gray. Yet the current independent foreign policy of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte struggles not to name China as its enemy since it tries to moderate its relations with Beijing. Manila thus tries to be friends to all and enemies to none. But Beijing too has a vote in this. As the author argued elsewhere, avoiding any confrontation with China is not working. In this regard, a post-Duterte era Philippines should occupy a position of strength by developing a long-term strategy.  

Duterte’s presidency believed in the simplistic war-and-peace dichotomy when it adopted an appeasement policy in the hope that Chinese investments would tamper their grip in the South China Sea. But hopes cannot undo facts on the ground about China’s failed development promises

The COVID-19 pandemic proved that China would remain unstoppable in fulfilling its hegemonic dream by continuously refusing to adhere to the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling and continuing its harassment of Filipino fishing and security vessels. While Beijing kisses Manila’s one cheek through its pandemic and investment-related assistance, it also slaps the other through the refusal to honor the said ruling. 

The Philippines continues to play stubborn at this trying moment, striking a pretext that it remains neutral in great power competition. Duterte bars the Philippine navy from joining freedom of navigation exercises, and refuses to sanction Chinese companies involved in island-building activities in the South China Sea. The president also turns a blind eye to security risks in critical infrastructure, such as Chinese 5G networks in military camps and Chinese airport development near a Philippine naval base. 

ASEAN struggles to uphold its centrality. Yet geography and weak institutions strike back, allowing Beijing to co-opt other ASEAN states. In June, the ASEAN upheld the 1982 UNCLOS and called for all concerned parties to abide by it. Vietnam’s effort in consolidating ASEAN’s 2020 position might be virtuous, but Brunei’s upcoming ASEAN chairmanship in 2021 might not offer a sustained momentum to stand against China. 

The ASEAN-China Code of Conduct’s original launch schedule in 2021 might be suspended. But this would not stop China from imposing its soft-coercion in its own interpretation of the regional instrument. Far worse, this trajectory may prohibit other states from upping their stakes in the area. As far as reality is concerned, the states in Southeast Asia are on their own. 

Manila toils to procure items for its defense modernization, but this may prove useless. Philippine naval patrols in the South China Sea may continue. Still, Beijing does not always use its navy to intimidate Manila; rather, it harasses Filipino vessels using coast guards and maritime militia. Moreover, Chinese activities now works inland in the archipelago to increase a grip on critical infrastructures. The Philippines may be adapting a whole-of-government approach for its overall security efforts. However, there is no guarantee that other government agencies are fulfilling their end of the bargain. 

The barrier for developing a sound defense posture is most likely attributed to the Philippine Congress’ insistence on increasing defense spending the required 5%, as well as the persisting internal security operations of the military. The recent Sulu bombing, encounters between the military and communist rebels, and halted modernization projects to aid pandemic-related efforts further affirm this trend. 

With regard to its security alliance with Washington, Manila’s drama over the suspension of the 1997 Visiting Forces Agreement’s termination explains that the Philippines would not throw the alliance away anytime soon. However, without a unified opinion from Duterte and his foreign and defense secretaries, a sound strategy is absent to decide as to how the alliance would become a useful defense concept for the Philippines. This gap likely makes the alliance dormant in the short to long-term, and the US will likely be waiting for the Philippines’ own contribution in countering China. 

A conventional war may be absent now. But assuming that China continues to rise, a more serious security competition with the US may take place where the Philippines is delinquent to secure itself. This August, China has launched an “aircraft carrier-killer” medium-term ballistic missiles in the South China Sea, while the US has consolidated its strategic position east of the Philippines in Guam and Palau. A serious and bloody conventional war between the US and China may be one where the Philippines is too weak to participate if it insists on neutrality. By pressing utopian terms on China as a peace-loving neighbor, strategic realities may soon hit hard further down the line. 

Duterte has less than two years in office now, and the 2022 elections seem so “far away” because of Manila’s preoccupation with the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet China has a vote too where it would not wait for the Philippines to fix its health systems, resolve the drama in its security alliance with the US, nor modernize its military and defense posture. 

The Philippines needs a sound grand strategy – a continuous jazz symphony – if it wants an independent China policy. A grand strategy should gear all institutions to prepare the state in a conventional war scenario heavily invested in precision-strike capabilities in the air-sea-land environment, supported by cyber and nonmilitary capabilities while enhancing engagements with regional defense partners to achieve maritime, air, and cyber domain awareness, and engage with the US in the security alliance, not as its security guarantor but as a reliable partner with a shared vision. 

To achieve these goals, the post-Duterte Philippines needs to reform its National Security Council into a more influential executive agent. The agency’s function should not be to parrot the president’s political agenda, but rather to orchestrate efforts in the sectors of defense, foreign affairs, local government, economic planning, science and technology, labor, energy, among others, with regard to the rising Chinese threat, even if it challenges the chief executive’s conventional thinking. The era of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger provides a model in that regard.  

All views and opinions expressed in the article are entirely his own and do not reflect the official position of the author’s office or the AFP. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of or any institutions with which the authors are associated.



Joshua Bernard B. Espeña is a defense analyst in the Office for Strategic Studies and Strategy Management of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. He is currently taking his Master in International Studies at the University of the Philippines, Diliman. He writes extensively on the Great Power Politics of the Indo-Pacific, Philippine Strategic Culture, and ASEAN Studies.

Disclaimer: All views and opinions expressed in the article are entirely his own and do not reflect the official position of his office and the AFP. 

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