Rand Corporation: China has lost the Philippines despite Duterte’s best efforts…



China Has Lost the Philippines Despite Duterte’s Best Efforts


(Foreign Policy)

by Derek Grossman

May 6, 2021

Since his election in 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has time and again underscored his anti-U.S. and pro-Chinese orientation. On his first trip to Beijing in 2016, he announced it was “time to say goodbye to Washington”—much to the delight of his host, Chinese President Xi Jinping. He has welcomed Chinese Belt and Road Initiative investments, has threatened to suspend joint military exercises with the United States, and calls China “a good friend.”

But in the course of a year, Duterte appears to have done an about-face on China, frustrating Beijing’s attempts to pull Manila out of Washington’s strategic orbit. On Sunday, Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr. unleashed an expletive-laced tweet on Beijing, telling it in no uncertain terms to to get out of the South China Sea, where the two countries have been embroiled in a dispute. “You’re like an ugly oaf forcing your attentions on a handsome guy who wants to be a friend; not to father a Chinese province,” he wrote.

Locsin’s Twitter storm is only the latest indication that Beijing’s rising assertiveness—especially its challenge to the Philippines’s internationally recognized maritime claims—has finally forced Manila’s hand. Duterte now recognizes, in spite of his continued rhetoric to the contrary, that China is no friend, and the Philippines needs its long-standing security ally—the United States—after all.

Duterte’s realization will have significant geostrategic implications between now and the end of his term in June 2022, when the Philippine Constitution requires him to step down.

Duterte’s ire with Washington peaked on February 11, 2020, when he decided to terminate the U.S.-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). Among other things, the VFA enables U.S. troops to seamlessly deploy to the Philippines to address potential contingencies, including against China.

Last June, Locsin first signaled Manila’s shifting attitudes, arguing that “in a time of pandemic and heightened superpower tensions,” it would be wise to keep the VFA in place. Then, on July 12, 2020—the fourth anniversary of the 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that rejected Beijing’s claims to the disputed waters—the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs finally acknowledged the ruling publicly. The Duterte administration had previously avoided being so explicit to preserve positive ties with China.

Duterte’s September 23, 2020 speech at the United Nations General Assembly was another indication he had turned the corner on China. He directly addressed the issue of South China Sea disputes by noting the 2016 ruling was “beyond compromise,” adding “we firmly reject attempts to undermine it.” It was the most direct confrontation with Beijing Duterte ever risked, and it showed his position against China was hardening.

The shift back to the U.S. camp logically followed from there. On November 11, 2020, Locsin cited great-power competition in the South China Sea as a reason for suspending VFA termination. Making this connection clearly implied Manila trusts and sides with Washington—Locsin highlighted the traditional ally’s “clarity and strength”—rather than Beijing, not least because of the latter’s aggressively expansionary regional stance…

Beijing has only itself to blame if it has lost the opportunity to pull the Philippines out of the U.S. orbit. China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea has made it virtually impossible for Duterte to push his pro-China and anti-U.S. agenda. 

Beijing’s destabilizing activities in the South China Sea have prompted Duterte to allow Locsin to submit numerous diplomatic notes in protest. Duterte has also yielded to Philippine Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana’s calls to maintain close ties with the U.S. military through combined training operations, such as the annual Balikatan exercise, and to reaffirm the importance of the alliance. Indeed, both ministers were in close and regular contact with their counterparts in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, throughout the Whitsun Reef saga.

Moreover, Beijing’s growing assertiveness has only made it more difficult for Duterte to overcome pervasive anti-Chinese sentiment among his own country’s population. Nor has he been able to assuage the concerns of the staunchly pro-U.S. Philippine defense establishment, which sees China as Manila’s top threat. Politically, Philippine Senate members are angry with Duterte’s policy of refusing to stand up to China and his blatant disregard for the country’s traditional alliance with the United States.

To be sure, Duterte’s own instincts, high approval ratings, and lame-duck status probably mean he won’t plan a wholesale embrace of the United States. On the contrary, he is very unlikely to stop criticizing the United States because he remains, at his core, anti-U.S. That said, China has left Duterte little choice but to keep inching closer to Washington. To that end, it is likely the United States and the Philippines will reach an agreement on the new VFA soon. Atmospherics aside, Duterte is becoming less of a headache for Washington and more of one for Beijing—and that is a good thing for U.S. strategy in the Indo-Pacific.

Derek Grossman is a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation and a former daily intelligence briefer to the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs.

This commentary originally appeared on Foreign Policy on May 3, 2021. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.


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1 Response to Rand Corporation: China has lost the Philippines despite Duterte’s best efforts…

  1. Pingback: A militarily aggressive China drives fearful South East Asia towards the USA… | weehingthong

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