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What Might Duterte’s Southeast Asia Tour Mean for Regional Security?

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Asia Defense

What Might Duterte’s Southeast Asia Tour Mean for Regional Security?

A brief look at the potential defense implications of the Philippine president’s recent regional voyages.

What Might Duterte’s Southeast Asia Tour Mean for Regional Security?
Credit: U.S. State Department Photo

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s trip to Singapore in December marks his eighth visit to a fellow Southeast Asian country since coming to office in June this year. So far, Duterte has toured Laos, Indonesia, Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Cambodia. This series of visits has preceded the Philippines commencing its chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2017. ASEAN will mark a significant milestone as it celebrates the 50th anniversary since its establishment in 1967.

Such introductory visits by statesmen and senior military leaders early within their terms in office are common in this region, but the tours are potentially beneficial for Duterte, who lacks experience in national politics and international diplomacy. He intends to gather insights from various ASEAN states to strengthen engagements and build a common action agenda on regional issues. Just how this corresponds to Duterte’s broader foreign and security policies remains to be seen.

Shifting Gears Toward ASEAN?

Coming off a historic win over its South China Sea arbitration case, Duterte surprised everybody when he decided to focus instead on strengthening relations with Beijing. He further emphasized that Manila will pursue an “independent foreign policy,” even suggesting that this policy seeks not only to strengthen relations with China, but also with Japan, South Korea, and other ASEAN states, focusing on Asian economic integration.

With this expansion of strategic partnerships and greater regional economic interaction, there is a perception that the Philippines might be moving outside the orbit of its long-time ally, the United States. Duterte, who is known to be a sharp critic of the United States since his days as mayor of Davao City, believes that the Philippines has for too long been subservient to American foreign policy. His relationship with the United States soured further when President Barack Obama criticized his anti-drug campaign. One of the reasons why Duterte shifted toward Beijing is because he prefers their stance regarding non-interference on sovereignty issues – in this case his pursuit of the war against drugs and what Western governments labeled as extrajudicial executions.

A similar emphasis on non-interference by Singapore was equally complimented by Duterte. At the state dinner hosted by President Tony Tan, Duterte commended Singapore for staying out of the Philippines’ domestic affairs, whereas the island city-state expressed support for Manila’s tough stance against drugs. His war on drugs campaign – a key sticking point which contributed to the recent downturn in Philippine-U.S. ties – has not drawn public criticism from fellow ASEAN governments, thereby upholding the norm of non-interference in internal affairs, which has long been part of the “ASEAN Way.” This contrasts with some fellow ASEAN member states, Malaysia for example, in how they have responded to Myanmar and the Rohingya issue.

It is apparent from Duterte’s Southeast Asia travels that there is a desire to shift away from the U.S. orbit, but not necessarily into that of China or Russia. In the pursuit of a more omni-directional foreign policy, Manila would have to balance its national interests between maintaining its role as part of the traditional, U.S.-led “hub and spoke” alliance system while maintaining its independence. ASEAN naturally serves as an arena for Duterte to recalibrate the country’s foreign and security policy agendas, which impact both external and domestic matters.

The domestic dimension looms large in this regard. Besides the relentless campaign against drugs, the Duterte administration is also reorienting national defense and security posture inwards, targeting the scourge of militancy and terrorism given the heightened threat posed by the Islamic State and associated organizations such as the Maute Group. The visits to ASEAN neighbors included significant discussions on counterterrorism. With Singapore, Duterte sought closer defense and security links with a primary focus on tackling transnational terrorism.

On the Regional Maritime Commons

In the maritime sphere, much attention following the July 12 arbitral award on the South China Sea was on the shift in Manila’s policy toward rapprochement with Beijing. While Duterte recently raised the prospect of putting the dispute on the backburner and even the possibility of joint energy exploration with China in the South China Sea, notable inroads have been made in the realm of cooperation between maritime forces.

The most recent inaugural coastguard committee meeting between the Philippines and China may herald a possible Sino-ASEAN wide initiative or mechanism involving civilian maritime law enforcement agencies. Nascent bilateral progress between Manila and Beijing could positively facilitate an expanded Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), earlier proposed in view of the rising prominence of coast guard-type and irregular maritime forces involved in recent South China Sea incidents.

Duterte’s visits to other ASEAN capitals certainly did not give any special emphasis on the South China Sea disputes; however, they did emphasize practical security cooperation to pursue collective solutions in response to shared maritime challenges. Noteworthy moves initiated by Duterte include granting permission to Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur to carry out “hot pursuit” of seaborne criminals and terrorists into Philippine waters. This is aimed at ameliorating the spate of “kidnap-for-ransom” attacks perpetuated by armed militants, especially the Abu Sayyaf Group, in the Sulu Sea tri-border area. There is a need for a regional perspective in this regard. It took long, sustained effort for Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore to agree to “hot pursuit” by their maritime forces as part of the Malacca Straits Patrols (MSP) against the spate of piracy and sea robbery attacks in the strategic waterway about a decade ago.

Could this set the stage for more “bold” initiatives within ASEAN, which could even potentially challenge the long-held premises of national sovereignty and territorial integrity that has hindered such operational forms of cooperation? Application of this “hot pursuit” practice in the Sulu Sea, not to mention the advocacy by Kuala Lumpur to base the Sulu Sea trilateral coordinated patrols on the MSP model, could signal more widespread acceptance of closer cooperation at this level. Certainly, mutual trust, friendship, and intramural unity would be necessary to ensure the success of such forms of maritime security cooperation.

Promoting Further ASEAN Defense Industrial Collaboration?

The recent interest from Manila in Chinese and Russian arms may be perceived as more evidence of Duterte’s break from reliance on the United States for its defense materiel needs. However, it is clear also that the Philippine military and police, being traditional users of Western equipment, would be cautious in the options undertaken.

For example, the $14.4 million grant offered by Beijing for Manila to procure Chinese armaments would yield limited increased capabilities – certainly not enough to procure any “big-ticket” items such as fighter jets or warships. The Philippine Department of National Defense is seeking equipment tailored for low-intensity operations such as fast boats, small arms, and night vision devices. These items could be fielded rapidly by the Philippine security agencies while minimizing undue dislocations caused by the diffusion of non-Western equipment.

The prospective purchase of these Chinese weapons and interest shown in Russian arms reflect Manila’s sense of urgency in equipping its security forces with sufficient capabilities. They seek to do so preferably with little or no risk posed to the sovereignty of their defense enterprise from a political downturn with a supplier like the U.S. in dealing with internal security threats such as drug criminals, militants, and terrorists.

If seen together with previous and more recent purchases, it becomes clear that Manila is pursuing a more diversified arms procurement strategy that aligns with Duterte’s omni-directional foreign and security policies. The recent purchase of air and surface search radars from the U.S. to equip two of the Philippine Navy’s patrol frigates is one such example. Duterte’s visit to ASEAN neighbors and advocacy for enhanced defense and security relations could well include greater emphasis on intra-ASEAN defense-industrial cooperation. After all, the Philippine Navy purchased a pair of landing ships, dubbed Strategic Sealift Vessels, from Indonesia. There is greater opportunity to strengthen ASEAN Defense Industry Collaboration, which can benefit the regional bloc’s defense and security capacity-building efforts through reduced costs. The Philippines is already in the process of building a defense industrial park that will house global military equipment makers.

Some Final Thoughts

Indeed, expectations are high for the unconventional, at times mercurial, Duterte as the Philippines takes the helm of ASEAN in its 50th year. If he can steer ASEAN in the right direction, notably acknowledging and abiding by the rule of law, he might be able to strengthen the region’s voice in the international community while maintaining its centrality when engaging with the major powers. It may also present an opportunity for Manila to recalibrate its foreign and security policies – maintaining its security alliance while carving out a niche for itself to play a larger, more constructive role in the region. The potential for this undertaking could benefit not only the Philippines, but also ASEAN as a bloc in pursuing its long-avowed desire to remain a driver of the regional security architecture.

Ava A. Goldman recently completed her PhD at Cranfield University, U.K. She is currently based in Singapore.

Swee Lean Collin Koh is research fellow with the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, based in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.