[FNPFP ORIGINAL] Duterte’s Alliance and Strategic Partnership Diplomacy

Mico Galang
Thursday, December 1, 2016

In the realm of foreign policy, the Duterte administration has pursued what has been termed by the media as the “pivot to China” policy, i.e. pursuing close relations with Beijing despite overlapping claims in the South China Sea (SCS)—a stark contrast to the frosty bilateral ties under President Aquino. Indeed, shortly after Manila received a favorable ruling from an arbitral tribunal, Duterte made an official state visit to China where he was warmly received and where he forged various economic deals with Beijing.

Some analysts view Duterte’s moves as bandwagoning with China—an observation reinforced when Manila announced its “separation” from the US, which Duterte clarified later as separating from the economic and military policies of Washington in the region. Duterte’s China initiative has raised concerns in some quarters that Manila is pursuing close relations with Beijing at the expense of its allies and partners. As former top diplomat Albert del Rosario candidly argued: “a close alliance, or valued partners and friends, are suddenly cast aside to favor another state.”

Is the Duterte administration really joining China’s bandwagon? Is the new Philippine government casting aside its treaty ally and partners in favor of China?

If one would judge Duterte based on his rhetoric alone, then one can arrive at such a conclusion. However, the policy actions of the Duterte administration tell another story. Early in his presidency, Duterte reaffirmed the Philippines’ strategic partnership with two key countries in the region: Vietnam and Japan. Visiting Vietnam, Duterte and his counterpart, Tran Dai Quang, reiterated their commitment in promoting “peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation and overflight, as well as unimpeded commerce in the region particularly the [SCS].” Moreover, they also agreed to strengthen maritime cooperation in order to solve unexpected encounters at sea, as well as emphasized the need to identify new areas of defense cooperation between the two countries.

Visiting Tokyo, Duterte and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe underscored “the need to ensure maritime safety and security which are vital elements for the peace, stability and continued prosperity” of the Philippines and Japan. Previously, the Duterte administration welcomed Tokyo’s commitment to Manila’s maritime security capacity-building initiatives, as manifested in the transfer of the BRP Tubbataha--funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency -- to the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG). During Duterte’s visit, Japan and the Philippines reached two key agreements that would enhance the latter’s capabilities: further improvement of the PCG, and the transfer of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s training aircraft TC-90s. Moreover, Duterte announced that he is open to the possibility of a Philippines-Japan joint patrol in the SCS.

Vietnam and Japan are two key states in the region that would play major roles in maintaining a stable balance of power in the Asia Pacific. Along with their shared history of hostile relations with Beijing, Hanoi and Tokyo, which are both closely working with Washington on security issues, have manifested their concern over the strategic implications of China’s rise through the development of their defense capabilities and enhanced regional security engagements.

Clearly, by strengthening ties with Japan and Vietnam, Duterte is not really jumping on Beijing’s bandwagon—and this is also very much evident in Manila’s relations with Washington under the new Philippine government. Notwithstanding his tough talk of separation from Washington, Duterte has not initiated moves to dismantle the foundations of the Philippine-US security relations: the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), and the 1997 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). In fact, despite his talk that the 2016 Philippine Balikatan Exercises would be the last under his term, Duterte approved the recommendation of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to proceed with the succeeding Balikatan Exercises, albeit with some modifications. More importantly, despite Duterte’s announcement that he intends to expel foreign troops in the Philippines within two years, Malacañang authorized the implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which, among others, would allow increased rotational presence of US forces in the country.

From this broader perspective, Duterte’s foreign policy initiatives strongly indicate that his administration is not totally aligning with China. Instead, Duterte’s alliance and strategic partnership diplomacy appears to be part of a larger hedging strategy, through which Manila can harness maximum benefits from both powers, while at the same time prepare contingency options.

It must be noted, however, that Duterte’s rhetoric has produced some degree of uncertainty for the Philippines-US alliance. In the short term, the election of Donald Trump as US President may provide an opportunity to enhance Philippine-US relations—a sentiment which Duterte expressed when he congratulated Trump on the latter’s victory.

Mico A. Galang is a graduate student at the University of the Philippines-Diliman (UPD), where he is pursuing a Master in International Studies. The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the official position of any organization he is affiliated with.