After years of shifting the Philippines closer to China, President Rodrigo Duterte appears to be leaning back toward the U.S.
The 75-year-old leader on Tuesday gave his most forceful defense yet of a 2016 arbitration ruling in favor of the Philippines that said Beijing’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea breached international law. Addressing the United Nations General Assembly, Duterte said the decision “is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon.”
“We firmly reject attempts to undermine it,” Duterte said, without naming China. “We welcome the increasing number of states that have come in support of the award and what it stands for — the triumph of reason over rashness, of law over disorder, of amity over ambition.”
Duterte had resisted raising the tribunal ruling after he took power in 2016, embracing closer ties with China while announcing a “separation” from the U.S. — his country’s biggest military ally for decades. But in recent months, his government has started to shift back toward America, which remains widely popular among Filipinos, as Beijing has increased assertiveness in the South China Sea and the Philippine economy suffers due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
There’s now “more space for those critical of China to be heard and to have influence,” said Malcolm Cook, visiting senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute and coordinator of its Philippines project, adding that officials known to be more hawkish on China have stepped to the fore while Duterte has dialed back on anti-U.S. rhetoric. “The weights on the balance of Philippine foreign policy for good relations with the U.S. and good relations with China have shifted this year in favor of the U.S.”
In June, the Philippines suspended its decision to end a 22-year old agreement that facilitates joint military exercises with the U.S. while starting to increase criticism of China’s moves in disputed waters. Duterte this month pardoned a U.S. Marine found guilty in 2015 of killing a transgender Filipina.
This week the Philippines welcomed the U.S. and other nations to play a role in maintaining security in the South China Sea, following a similar statement from Vietnam earlier this month. China has accused the U.S. of intervening in territorial disputes and called it “the biggest driver of militarization of the South China Sea.”
“I can swear to you, Western powers will be in the South China Sea,” Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin told lawmakers in a hearing in Manila on Monday. “We believe in the balance of power, that the freedom of the Filipino people depends on the balance of power in the South China Sea.”
Philippine officials have framed the recent moves as a reflection of the country’s independent foreign policy more than siding with one particular camp. The U.S. alliance with the Philippines is its oldest in the region, with a mutual defense treaty signed in 1951 stipulating that either nation will respond militarily in the event of an attack on the other.
Duterte “upholds the Philippine national interest and no other country’s interest,” presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said in a text message. Earlier this month, Roque told reporters that Duterte may have pardoned the U.S. marine to curry favor in an effort to gain access to coronavirus vaccines.
The quest to secure a vaccine shows that Duterte isn’t abandoning Beijing: He said this month he would prioritize China and Russia in sourcing a COVID-19 vaccine over Western drugmakers, which require cash advances in exchange for supplies. The Philippines has been hit with the most infections in Southeast Asia, with more than 291,000 known cases, and its economy is projected to fall by as much as 6.6 percent this year.
Duterte is “hedging his bets more at a time when he wants to keep several options open for access to vaccine and the Philippines is coming under more pressure from China in the South China Sea,” said Peter Mumford, Southeast & South Asia practice head at risk consultancy Eurasia Group. “Duterte is ideologically more drawn to China than he is the U.S., but his foreign policy is also driven by political and economic pragmatism.”
Given China’s recent posturing in the dispute sea, it remains a difficult task for Duterte to convince stakeholders it doesn’t pose a national security threat to the Philippines, said Rommel Ong, retired rear admiral in the Philippine Navy and professor at Ateneo de Manila University’s school of government.
In recent months, the Philippines has accused Beijing of surveying waters claimed by both countries, using its coast guard to seize fishing equipment near a disputed shoal, announcing new coral reef research facilities and pointing a laser gun at a Philippine Navy ship. What’s more, China’s promise of billions of dollars promised by China for infrastructure hasn’t materialized.
“If China had fulfilled its investment promises and taken less aggressive in its actions in the South China Sea, the president would be in a better position to convince the various domestic stakeholders to align with his pro-China stance,” Ong said.
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