Rodrigo Duterte was inaugurated as president of the Philippines on June 30. During the elections, Duterte displayed a tendency for courting controversy, with statements such as “Forget the laws of human rights” and “Kill all of them [criminals],” in the process earning comparisons with Donald Trump.
Anti-establishmentarianism and nationalism are two dominant global trends, apparent not only in the U.S. but in other parts of the world, as seen in the recent Brexit vote. Duterte’s election is part of these trends. The Philippine economy continues to enjoy strong growth, with annual growth of more than six percent. Yet the middle class accounts for little more than 10 percent of the total population, corruption is rampant, and public security remains poor. Voters clearly hoped that Duterte would take his success in improving security in Davao City – once considered the most dangerous city in the Philippines – and replicate it nationally..
Under a President Duterte, the foreign policy of the Philippines could also shift significantly. In regional security terms, interest will be centered on the new president’s approach to the South China Sea.
Over the past few years, China has called for dialogue and peaceful settlements to the South China Sea territorial disputes, while simultaneously making steady, incremental changes to the situation on the ground, by occupying the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal and building artificial islands in the Spratlys. In response, the previous Philippine government of Benigno Aquino abandoned talks and stepped up defense cooperation with Japan and the U.S., while instituting arbitral proceedings against China under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Will Duterte continue with this strategy, or will he abandon it? The question has considerable import for regional security.
The answer is unclear. Already the new president has hinted that he may prioritize economic interests and change policy on the South China Sea. Yet during the campaign, Duterte said that if China did not abide by the decision of the arbitral tribunal, he would ride a jet ski to the Scarborough Shoal and plant the Philippine flag. But he also suggested that he would shelve the South China Sea territorial issue if it meant receiving economic support from China. After his victory, Duterte stressed that he would not surrender the sovereign rights of the Philippines in the territorial dispute. But at a meeting with China’s ambassador to the Philippines, Zhao Jianhua, Duterte reportedly said that he wanted to improve relations. In fact, Duterte received an offer of cooperation from China, to help with the construction of a rail line intended to ease the chronic traffic congestion in Manila and said that he will send the new Transportation Secretary, Arthur Tugade, to Beijing. The new Foreign Affairs Secretary, Perfecto Yasay, Jr., also mentioned discussions with China.
With the arbitral decision expected on July 12, it has even been rumored that Duterte will stop the proceedings. China did not participate in these arbitration and has insisted that it will not accept the ruling. There has been speculation that China will withdraw from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea if the ruling is not in China’s favor. That is unlikely. Instead, to dodge international criticism for not accepting the tribunal ruling, China is no doubt working behind the scenes to strengthen relations with the Duterte camp.
Meanwhile, all eyes are on Scarborough Shoal and whether China will begin land reclamation there. To gain complete military control over its notorious nine-dashed line, China needs a military base on Scarborough Shoal, in addition to its facilities on Hainan Island, the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands. The general view is that if the tribunal rules against Beijing, China will begin land reclamation activities to show that it does not accept the decision. Of course, China may prioritize winning over the Duterte administration and put off land reclamation activities for a while. Ultimately, though, this will merely be a delay; land reclamation will begin eventually.
The Scarborough Shoal is close to Subic Bay, a former U.S. naval base already being used by the U.S. military, and Clark Air Base, a former U.S. Air Force base. If China is able to establish a military base on Scarborough Shoal, it would be able to monitor the military facilities on Luzon Island and launch direct missile attacks. In late April, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter expressed strong concern about Chinese land reclamation at Scarborough Shoal and commented that it could lead to military conflict. If the Philippines attaches importance to economic cooperation with China and compromises on the territorial issue, this will make it difficult for America to protect Scarborough Shoal and maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea.
The future of the alliance between the U.S. and the Philippines is also unclear. The constitution of the Philippines prohibits foreign military bases on its soil, but the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed between the U.S. and the Aquino government essentially paved the way for the return of U.S. bases and a greater U.S. military presence in the South China Sea, while stating that the U.S. would also contribute to the modernization and upgrading of the Philippine military. Duterte has been skeptical about foreign military bases, but he has also said that he respects the Philippine Supreme Court’s decision declaring the agreement constitutional, and he is likely to accept the EDCA for the time being. After winning the election, however, Duterte did not follow tradition, but chose to meet with China’s ambassador after Japan’s, rather than with the U.S. ambassador. This may indicate his priorities in terms of foreign policy. During his meeting with the U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines, Philip S. Goldberg, Duterte asked whether the U.S. would support the Philippines in a military conflict with China, suggesting some distrust of the U.S.
The U.S.-Philippine Alliance is one between a former colonial power and a former colony. The alliance is marked by anti–American sentiment and nationalism, which led to the departure of U.S. forces from the Philippines in 1992. The diminishing value of the Philippines for the U.S. military at the end of the Cold War, coupled with an uptick in relations between the Philippines and China, also encouraged the departure of U.S. troops. However, China’s occupation of the Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef after the departure of U.S. troops prompted the U.S. and the Philippines to sign the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in 1999. Subsequently, the two countries gradually restored military cooperation, while carefully avoiding stationing U.S. bases in the Philippines. When China took control of Scarborough Shoal in 2012, discussions on the EDCA commenced. The U.S. and the Philippines both recognized the threat of China in the South China Sea and rediscovered the value of their alliance.
However, if Duterte delivers on his promise to disregard human rights, the U.S. Congress will not keep silent. If he choses the path of appeasing China while overreacting to the criticisms of Congress, fueling nationalism and distrust of the U.S., the U.S.-Philippine Alliance will likely again find itself in troubled waters. There is also the possibility that if Donald Trump, who is skeptical about the alliance, wins the U.S. elections later this year, the U.S.-Philippine Alliance could collapse altogether. In this case, China would likely push forward with its plan to turn the South China Sea into a Chinese lake.
When Japan tried to do something similar, it triggered the Pacific War. One lesson from that conflict was the importance of avoiding a situation where one country has control over the South China Sea. The Japanese government of Shinzo Abe today emphasizes a policy of “open and stable seas.” It has called for solutions to maritime disputes based on international law. Luckily, Davao City, where Duterte was mayor, has a good relationship with Japan and after winning the election Duterte met first with the Japanese ambassador, expressing his intention to bolster ties with Japan. With China repeatedly challenging the status quo in the South China Sea, Japan must show the Duterte administration an alternative – the maintenance of peace and stability through the rule of law – that is in the interests of the Philippines and the broader region.
Tetsuo Kotani is Senior Research Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs.