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Duterte’s pro-Beijing posture is unsustainable but he will never shift to US support

By Vincenzo Caporale

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s pro-Beijing posture is under tension. A part of that tension comes from the increasingly negative view of China embedded in the population, policy-makers, and military leaders. China’s escalating disregard for Philippine territory is compounding this tension, which, together, have made Duterte’s pro-Beijing foreign policy stretched to its limit. Yet, due partially to a deep-seated distrust of America, we should not expect him to jump into the US’s arms any time soon.

Pro-Beijing Posture

Duterte has gone above and beyond to maintain friendly posturing towards China, mainly at the expense of the Philippines’ historic alliance with America. Shortly after his election in 2016, Duterte declared in Beijing: “In this venue, in your honor, I announce my separation from the United States.” This separation policy has, for the most part, remained consistent throughout his tenure. The clearest and most extreme example came in 2020 when he canceled (although he extended its’ phase-out date thrice) the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States- historically a fundamental agreement in the balance of power in Asia that underpinned the Mutual Defense Treaty (1951) by maintaining US troop presence in the Philippines.

The shift from the US to China has manifested itself in a lukewarm response to China’s assertions in Philippine claimed territory. Just two weeks into his presidency, the International Tribunal in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in a case brought by Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino JR., against Chinese claims in the Philippine claimed territory. For many, this was considered a geopolitical victory, not just for the Philippines but also for the other claimant states in Southeast Asia. Still, Duterte undercut the magnitude of the decision when in 2016, he described it as a “piece of paper” that would take a “back seat” in negotiations with China. Since 2016, Duterte has reaffirmed his disregard for it on multiple occasions.

Underlying Logic

It is simple, however, to understand the logic behind Duterte’s pro-Beijing posturing. Essentially, it breaks down as: I will be more cooperative in the disputes over the South China Sea in exchange for infrastructure investment and a partner who will ignore human rights abuses. During Duterte’s first Beijing visit- where he coincidently prologued the visit with the dismissal of the Hague ruling- he secured $24 billion in investment, credit, and loan pledges.

Moreover, under the guises of fighting terrorism and drug trafficking, Duterte has left a bloody trail of human rights abuses that China abstains from criticizing. According to the UN report on human rights deterioration in the Philippines, his abuses include extrajudicial killings with over 27,000 “suspected drug users” and 250 human rights defenders have been killed and legislating against dissent. China has largely ignored these abuses while the US has not. Whether it be the US President, US Senators, congressional commissions, or the State Department, the US has criticized the Philippines ’ human rights abuses on multiple occasions.

More strategically, though, Duterte has made a geopolitical decision based on US inaction in the South China Sea. Incrementally, China has secured its position in the South China Sea vis a vis the Philippines, with the 2012 takeover of the Scarborough Shoal being the most significant. Through these grey zone operations, China has improved its position, militarized parts of the territory, and secured part of its’ resources without bringing in outside powers like the US. Of course, the US publicly protests Chinese actions and will conduct freedom of navigation operations to the annoyance of Beijing. Yet, these responses fall far short of deterring further Chinese action. This lack of US help led some to conclude the best way to moderate Chinese actions in the South China Sea is to take a less confrontational and more cooperative approach to China. In essence, by reframing the bilateral relations and supporting its “world order conceptions” (something Duterte has supportedsince the inception of his Presidency), China will take a moderated position in the disputed territory.

False Promises

Yet, aside from criticizing human rights abuses, Beijing has fallen far short of the promises that allured Duterteto shift towards China in the first place. Duterte has earmarked half of the 75 projects in his infrastructure development initiative, “Build Build Build,” to Chinese companies, but only three have been financed. As of December 2020, less than 5% of the $24 billion promised by China has materialized.

Additionally, they are worse off vis a vis China in the South China Sea since the tilt towards Beijing. Despite an overall accommodation policy towards China with overtures such as an banning fishing in the Scarborough Shoal, ignoring the previously mentioned arbitration ruling, signing an MOU for joint oil and gas exploration in disputed territories, and canceling the aforementioned VFA, China has not moderated its strategy in the disputed territory. In 2019, China sent 200 ships to the Spratly island chains despite Duterte’s pleading and then aimed its weapon systems at a Philippine naval vessel near the island chains. Recently, the situation has escalated as China has sent 287 maritime militia ships into the Philippines Special Economic Zone (SEZ) who first were reported in early April and have yet to leave. This recent move by China fits its grey zone strategy in the South China Sea. It simply maintains a presence in disputed territories and normalizes its occupation, in effect daring claimant states to make them leave while simultaneously disrupting claimant state’s operations in the area.

Compounding Forces

Due to its actions in the West Philippine sea and false promises, China is increasingly negatively viewed in the Philippines. In ISEASE’s annual State of Southeast Asia Survey, when asked about China’s intentions in the region, 60% of Filipinos argued that China was a revisionist power looking to turn Southeast Asia into its sphere of influence. Notably, 81% of Filipinos have little or no confidence that China will “do the right thing” in contributing to “global peace, security, prosperity, and governance.”

The pushback includes Duterte’s military and cabinet, which has always been disconnected from Duterte’s China policy. In 2020, the Foreign Affairs department publicly acknowledged its’ 2016 arbitral award despite Duterte’s public rejection. The most colorful came in April 2021 from his Foreign Affairs Secretary, Teodoro Locsin Jr., who tweeted at China to “get the f**k out” of Philippine territory. More officially, countless diplomatic protests have been filed against China over the years, while other cabinet members like Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana have publicly condemned China.

Duterte’s China policy is increasingly untenable. With the promises from Beijing that sustained this policy looking emptier than ever and China’s actions in the Philippine claimed waters are increasing the negative view of China in the Philippines, the policy is more self-defeating than ever. This reality has led some to predicta shift in Duterte’s policy towards the Americans and away from Beijing.

Although we have seen some examples of him backtracking on his Beijing tilt (for instance, in February of 2021, Duterte admitted the need for an American military presence in the Philippines through the VFA), he has continuously reaffirmed his preference for Beijing and the baggage that comes with, over the United States. As recently as May 2021, in the face of blatant Chinese presence in the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone, Duterte has enforced a gag order to silence criticism of China from his cabinet and reaffirmed his view of the 2016 arbitration ruling as “just a piece of paper” to be thrown away.

Distrust of America as an Explanatory Factor

Why Duterte has continued to choose Beijing despite its empty promises and geopolitical security threats is perplexing. Immediately, the obvious answers come to mind: hubris, pride, or different geopolitical priorities, et. cetera. However, analysts have almost entirely ignored that this reluctance to backtrack can be partially explained by his personal deep-seated distrust of America.

Duterte’s demonstrated history of a distrust that borders on dislike for America goes back far into his past. According to his sister, it began as early as Duterte’s childhood when his grandmother impressed upon him the atrocities during American Philippine war in the late 19th and early 20th century. This especially brutal war is interpreted by some to be an example of US hypocrisy and duplicity.  Some atrocities include a scorched earth campaign that left villages burned to ashes, non-combatants being interred, tortured or intentionally killed, and mass killings.

Debate over the veracity of some of these atrocities exist as does whether the Philippines were equal participants, but nevertheless, it has helped to shape the Duterte’s perspective on the US. For Duterte, this view has been confirmed throughout his political career. For instance, an incident in 2002 when the FBI took a suspected American terrorist out of the Davao authorities’ hands while Duterte was the mayor has only enhanced his view of America as an imperialist country that has little regard for lesser powers. This event has seemed to have a solidifying impact for Duterte’s viewpoint on America. As his Defense Secretary said, “That was a long time ago… but he still mentions it once in a while… [it] still rankles President Duterte to this day.”

As a result, America is a hypocritical and unreliable ally that has a bloody past with the Philippines in Duterte’s perspective. This view of America has created an anti-colonial bent that animates his foreign policy, which focuses on independence from the US’s control- even if that means he falls under Beijing’s. Duterte constantlyrefers to past moments where US rhetoric towards the Philippines has bordered on racism and when the US has not followed through on commitments or just the lowest moments of US action in the Philippines. For example, after the US congressional commission officially criticized his war on drugs, Duterte responded, “You’re investigating me…? I’m investigating you, I will start with your past sins. I will produce… the photographs that you took of the people you murdered here in the Philippines.”

Perhaps the most illustrative and recent example of this anti-American bent in the face of extreme geopolitical tension is his hyperbolic dismissal of US support despite hundreds of boats from China’s maritime militia threatening Philippine sovereignty. As noted, China has sent in over 200 ships into Philippine territory In early April. Shortly after, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Foreign Affairs Secretary Locsin and reaffirmed America’s commitment to the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, worry about China’s actions in the South China Sea, and the legality of the Philippines’ claims. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also called Defense Secretary Lorenzana to offer assistance if need be and inform him that “the United States has just recently sent their USS Theodore Roosevelt and they had an operation there at the West Philippine Sea.” Both Blinken and Austin expressed a desire to work with the Philippines on this issue and confidence in the future trajectory of bilateral cooperation. Duterte’s response, however, was to question the reliability of the US as an ally rooted in history, double down on China as a “good friend,” and reiterated that the Philippines would not go to war over the South China Sea- sending an important signal to Beijing while undercutting America’s support.

Duterte’s distrust of Washington is palpable. As an aide close to Duterte said in early 2016, “for him its’ policy, personal, historical, ideological et cetera., combined.” In other words, it is all-encompassing and therefore is difficult to disentangle and reverse, even if geopolitical realities require it. Still, he will increasingly find himself on the wrong end of China’s territorial aggression without benefits to justify his deference as long as he maintains this anti-American inclination and China policy. Duterte understands this practically or he wouldn’t have extended the VFA, again. Nonetheless, Duterte will not allow himself to change course on his China policy at this point or any soon in large part for a severe distrust of America.

Vincenzo Caporale is an alumnus of UC Berkeley and the University of Cambridge postgraduate Politics and International Relations program. He is currently a feature writer at the Borgen Magazine and focuses on development and geopolitics in Southeast Asia. You can reach Vincenzo or follow his work on Twitter @Cappo02021

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