Is Duterte launching a diplomacy revolution?

By Zha Wen Source:Global Times Published: 2018/9/9 17:58:40

Undoubtedly in the past two years, the policies and remarks of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte have provided much for the media to chew on. And Philippine diplomacy has undergone a major shift.

The Duterte government has maintained a low profile in dealing with the South China Sea arbitration. Meanwhile, it has been proactively seeking to improve ties with China and the two countries have set up negotiation mechanisms to discuss the South China Sea issue.

At the same time, security cooperation between Manila and Washington seems to have cooled down. The Philippines scaled down the Balikatan military exercise with the US in 2017.

During Duterte's Beijing visit in 2016, he even announced military and economic "separation" from the US.

Some analysts described these changes as "diplomatic revolution." Quite a number of international relations scholars believe that the diplomatic strategy of the Philippines has changed from a "balancing act" adopted by Benigno Aquino III to Duterte's proactive policy, often called "bandwagoning."

It's not the first time that such a "diplomatic revolution" due to leadership change has been seen in the Philippines. As early as the rule of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (2001-10), China-Philippines relations were believed to be in a golden era.

But after Aquino took office, bilateral ties took a sudden turn for the worse and tensions on the South China Sea kept escalating. As a Philippine scholar noted, "The president makes all the difference."

After Duterte was elected, domestic politics underwent a restructuring. The number of senators of the Duterte-led PDP-Laban rose to more than 110 from only three at the end of elections. Former president Arroyo, who adopted a friendly attitude toward China but was put in jail, was not only released by Duterte, but also became his chief foreign policy adviser.

With the consolidation of Duterte's rule, he is able to focus on his anti-crime campaign and infrastructure-building ambitions. His foreign policy can better serve the need of domestic politics. Thus, it is easy to understand why Manila is often at odds with Western countries over human rights issues and is getting close to Beijing.

But the use of the term "revolution" to describe the Philippines' foreign policy change is an exaggeration. Although Duterte threatened to withdraw from the US-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement several times, he did not do it.

Moreover, the Philippine military has been receiving assistance and training from the US military. The compatibility and equipment and training background indicate that the Philippine military is serious about security cooperation with its US counterpart.

In terms of the South China Sea issue, the joint exploration of maritime resources between China and the Philippines, which is still under discussion, faces judicial obstacles. Antonio Tirol Carpio, Senior Associate Justice and acting Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines, used tough words and said that under the Philippine constitution, the government should not sign any joint exploration and development agreement with a foreign entity which refuses to acknowledge the Philippines' absolute sovereign rights within its EEZ.

It is also a misunderstanding to link the Philippines' engagement with China to the "bandwagoning" claim. While strengthening economic and diplomatic cooperation with China, the Philippines has never let its guard down against risks brought about by China's rise.

The Balikatan 2018 drill between the US and the Philippines in May returned to its 2016 scale, and focused on disaster relief as well as joint defense. Meanwhile, economic and security cooperation between the Philippines and Japan has also been boosted.

While the human rights issue triggered by Duterte's anti-drug campaign met with rampant criticism from Western countries, Japan has become the only "Western" country which holds "friendly" ties with Manila. Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force has also joined the Balikatan military exercise since 2017.

To a large extent, the Philippines' China policy shows a hedging feature - it not only seeks to maximize short-term interests, but also prepares itself for long-term risks. China should think of how to utilize the current positive momentum to turn bilateral and multilateral achievements into binding systems so as to avoid relations suffering setbacks due to leadership change in the Philippines.

The author is an associate professor at the Institute of International Relations, China Foreign Affairs University.


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