May 3, 2021, 4:37 pm
Since his election in 2016, the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly emphasized his anti-USA. and pro-Chinese orientation. On his first trip to Beijing in 2016, he announced that it was "time to say goodbye to Washington" – much to the delight of his host, Chinese President Xi Jinping. He has welcomed investments from the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, threatened to suspend joint military exercises with the United States, and called China "a good friend."
But over the course of a year, Duterte appears to have made a U-turn on China, which thwarted Beijing's attempts to get Manila out of Washington's strategic orbit. On Sunday, Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin Jr. posted an explosive tweet about Beijing in which he said, without a doubt, to get out of the South China Sea, where the two countries have been embroiled in a dispute. "You are like an ugly fool who draws your attention to a handsome man who wants to be a friend. Not to father a Chinese province," he wrote.
Locsin's Twitter storm is just the latest indication that Beijing's increasing assertiveness – particularly its challenge to the Philippines' internationally recognized maritime claims – has finally forced Manila's hand. Despite his persistent rhetoric to the contrary, Duterte now recognizes that China is no friend and that the Philippines ultimately needs its longtime security ally – the United States.
Duterte's realization will have significant geostrategic implications by the end of his term in June 2022, when the Philippine Constitution mandates his resignation.
Duterte's anger with Washington peaked on February 11, 2020 when he decided to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the United States and the Philippines. Among other things, the VFA enables US troops to be deployed seamlessly in the Philippines to tackle potential contingencies, including against China. According to the rules of the VFA, the agreement will remain in force for 180 days after both sides have announced that they will terminate it, leaving time for renegotiations. Since terminating the VFA, Duterte has approved two temporary extensions – in June and again in November 2020 – that essentially restarted the clock for the termination process.
Last June, Locsin first signaled Manila's shift in attitudes, arguing that "at a time of pandemic and mounting tensions between superpowers," it would be advisable to keep the VFA in place. On July 12, 2020, the fourth anniversary of the 2016 Hague Permanent Arbitration Court ruling denying Beijing's claims to the disputed waters, the Philippine Foreign Ministry finally publicly upheld the verdict. The Duterte government had previously avoided being so explicit in order to maintain positive relations with China.
Duterte's speech at the United Nations General Assembly on September 23, 2020 was further evidence that he had turned China around the corner. He went straight to the issue of the South China Sea disputes, noting that the 2016 ruling was "uncompromising," adding, "We firmly oppose attempts to undermine it." It was the most direct confrontation with Beijing Duterte ever risked, and it showed that its position against China was tightening.
The relocation back to the United States camp logically followed from there. On November 11, 2020, Locsin cited the great power competition in the South China Sea as the reason for the suspension of the VFA termination. Establishing this connection clearly implied Manila's trust and side of Manila with Washington – Locsin emphasized the “clarity and strength” of the traditional ally – and not least because of its aggressively expansive regional stance. Locsin went on to state that the suspension of the termination "would allow us to find an improved, mutually beneficial, more effective and lasting arrangement for how we can move forward in our mutual defense".
With Locsin's statement, the strategic shift was as good as sealed. Duterte also implicitly approved the VFA during an inspection tour of Clark Air Base northwest of Manila on February 12th. The "need of the moment requires the United States to be here," he said. "I agree."
In another important development, Manila signed a contract with India on March 2 to procure the BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles – a contract that is difficult to imagine without Duterte's personal approval. The BrahMos system jointly built by India and Russia would give Manila its first deterrent effect against China. When asked about the possibility of an acquisition, the Philippine Ministry of Defense replied that it was part of a modernization program "to improve our territorial defense capabilities".
Duterte's final escalation came on April 19 when he threatened China with military action in the South China Sea: "I will send my gray ships there to make a claim." That followed an incident earlier this month when an armed Chinese navy ship chased away a Filipino ship with a television news crew.
Of course, Duterte still hopes Manila can maintain peaceful relations with Beijing. He is particularly interested in receiving infrastructure and investment support through China's Belt and Road Initiative. China's increasing assertiveness since the beginning of his presidency and its intensification over the past two years have finally forced Duterte to publicly acknowledge that Beijing is not only a problem, but Washington is a valuable ally in its corner to deal with.
It is only Beijing's own fault if it missed the opportunity to pull the Philippines out of US orbit. China's aggressive behavior in the South China Sea has made it virtually impossible for Duterte to advance his pro-China and anti-US policies. Agenda. For example, from early 2019 to early 2020, China orbited Thitu Island, one of the largest of the Philippines-controlled Spratly Islands, which China claims includes hundreds of Coast Guard vessels and fishing militia boats throughout the year. In February 2020, just days after Duterte canceled the VFA, a Chinese naval ship – what the Philippine military termed an "enemy act" – targeted a Philippine naval ship that was patrolling disputed seas. In April 2020, Beijing officially declared the establishment of an administrative control over the disputed islands.
In the same month, Beijing moved the Haiyang Dizhi 8 geological survey ship with Coast Guard escorts to Vietnam's exclusive economic zone and did the same against Malaysia in May 2020 to harass West Capella, a drill ship searching for oil and gas in controversial waters. The measures underlined that no Southeast Asian neighbor is safe from China's growing assertiveness.
China refused to let up this year. In January, China passed a new Coast Guard law that allowed shooting at rival ships. In early March, Beijing's decision to deploy its fishing militia on the controversial Whitsun Strike in the Spratly Islands sparked months of Sino-Filipino tensions, including the incident of a Chinese naval vessel chasing a Filipino ship with a news crew on board. Tensions have only recently eased with the departure of Chinese fishing boats.
Beijing's destabilizing activities in the South China Sea have led Duterte to allow Locsin to file numerous diplomatic notes in protest. Duterte has also given in to calls by Philippine Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana to maintain close ties with the U.S. military and reaffirm the importance of the alliance through combined training missions such as the annual Balikatan exercise. In fact, throughout the Whitsun Reef saga, both ministers have been in close and regular contact with their counterparts in Washington, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
Furthermore, Beijing's growing assertiveness has only made it difficult for Duterte to overcome the pervasive anti-Chinese sentiment among his own country's people. Nor was he able to allay the concerns of staunch pro-USers. Filipino defense company that sees China as Manila's greatest threat. Politically, members of the Philippine Senate are angry with Duterte's policy of refusing to stand against China and his apparent disregard for the country's traditional alliance with the United States.
Duterte has little room for maneuver. China's aggressive stance on the South China Sea has seriously undermined the credibility of its pro-Chinese policies. It is therefore likely that Duterte will adopt a somewhat tougher stance towards China until his successor's inauguration – even if he still calls Beijing a "good friend" – and will avoid implementing new pro-Chinese programs. For example, he is unlikely to continue his long-standing plan for joint oil and gas exploration with Beijing in disputed waters.
Of course, Duterte's own instincts, high approval ratings, and lame duck status likely mean he's not planning a big hug from the United States. On the contrary, it is very unlikely that he will stop criticizing the United States because he is still essentially against the United States. Even so, China has left Duterte no choice but to get closer and closer to Washington. To that end, the United States and the Philippines are likely to reach an agreement on the new VFA soon. Atmosphere aside, Duterte is less of a headache for Washington than Beijing – and that's good for US strategy in the Indo-Pacific.