Foreign policy observers are confused over the country’s policy as the rivalry between the United States and China escalates in the Indo-Pacific region in the run up to the November 2020 US elections.
Teodoro “Teddy Boy” Locsin Jr, Manila’s foreign affairs secretary, had told an interview the country badly needed the US military presence as a counterbalance to China’s creeping expansion in the region.
His views ran contrary to the Philippine leader’s foreign policies after Duterte early this year terminated a key military-to-military deal with the United States allowing the rotation of troops, ships and planes in the Philippines for military training and exercises.
For decades, since the end of the Second World War and through the Cold War years, Washington has been Manila’s close security ally. It was, after all, its former colonial master, and the main source of its armaments — ships, planes, guns, communications and even some of its mobility equipment.
But the special relations with the Americans were threatened when Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016 as he pivoted towards China, repairing strained relations with Beijing after Manila filed an arbitration case before The Hague in 2013 to assert the country’s sovereign rights over the disputed territories in the South China Sea.
Four years into his single term, Duterte is the only Filipino leader who has never set foot on American soil. He even bitterly criticized a former US president — Barack Obama.
A self-proclaimed Socialist, he was not ashamed to heap praises on Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin and China’s president-for-life, Xi Jinping.
In fact, when a Russian warship made its first-even port call to Manila in 2017, he sat on the ship’s captain chair and jokingly told Russia deck officers he was trying to shoot down US planes flying above.
Throughout the five-month lockdown to control the spread of the coronavirus, Duterte has never missed an opportunity to praise the friendship between the Philippines and China, always thanking the Chinese leader.
He has also solely placed the country’s coronavirus pandemic plan on vaccines being developed by China and Russia. The president has, jokingly, offered himself to be a laboratory rat for the Russian vaccine Sputnik V.
But at the foreign ministry level, Locsin has been taking a different approach from his boss. He has taken a harder stance against China, which recently showed its displeasure and accused Manila of trying to stir the hornet’s nest together with Washington.
Since his appointment as foreign minister in late 2018, Manila has filed numerous diplomatic protests against Beijing for its illegal activities in the South China Sea.
In February, Locsin even surprised defense and military officials when he protested a dangerous move by a Chinese warship. The vessel locked in its guns on a Philippine Navy warship on patrol near Commodore Reef, one of nine features occupied by Manila in the Spratlys.
Manila’s latest protest was in May when Chinese Coast Guard seized fishing gear of local fishermen near Scarborough Shoal, another part of South China Sea, but well within the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
China has been illegally controlling the rocky outcrop since June 2012 after the Philippines withdrew from the uninhabited shoal after a three-month standoff.
Scarborough Shoal was a rich fishing ground that was used as an impact area for naval guns by the US Navy when Subic was still a large overseas naval base, until November 1992.
Locsin’s strong position against China’s excessive claims on the South China Sea has even surprised many of his counterparts in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) since his two predecessors under the Duterte government had been very accommodating to China.
They thought the sudden shift in US policy on the South China Sea in July could have contributed to Locsin’s maverick position despite efforts by the president’s spokesman, Harry Roque, to backpedal and tone down the foreign affairs’ position.
In July, US State Department Secretary Mike Pompeo clearly stated Washington’s position on the sea dispute, abandoning its neutral stand and siding with the Philippines based on the 2016 arbitration award from an international tribunal in The Hague.
The US described the Chinese claims on the South China Sea based on its history’s nine-dash-line as invalid, illegal and without solid basis. Australia agreed with the United States.
India, Japan, Canada and European powers, including the United Kingdom, supported Washington and even agreed to hold joint naval drills in the volatile waters. Together with New Zealand, the allies have also agreed to increase intelligence-sharing and exchanges on developments in the South China Sea.
As the United States builds a strong coalition to pressure China to comply with international norms, Beijing has been using its influence to counter the effort by asking some Southeast Asian countries to ask extra-regional powers to stay away from the disputed sea.
It was holding Asean hostage, delaying the conclusion of a formal Code of Conduct in the South China Sea by introducing a provision to keep out the US, Australia, India, Japan and New Zealand from the waters.
China wants to settle its territorial disputes bilaterally with four of Asean’s 10 members, weakening the positions of the individual states against a collective agreement with support from extra-regional powers.
The rivalry between the US and China is threatening to break up Asean’s unity and cohesion as two superpowers are forcing the individual countries to choose which side to support.
On the surface, Asean wants to keep its neutrality, taking pride in its centrality and keeping the driver’s seat in setting the course for the region’s future direction.
But practically each Southeast Asian country is driven by its own national interest to accommodate both sides. Some countries, like Brunei, Cambodia and Laos, tilt in favor of Beijing. The others, like Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam, are taking a hardline approach against China.
The Philippines has been sending mixed signals. Although its leader aligns his country with China, its foreign minister has been taking an independent position, risking his own Cabinet position in lining up behind Washington.
The United States has been increasing pressure on China on the South China Sea. The State Department has imposed visa restrictions on senior executives and families of China’s state-owned companies involved in the island-building in the Spratlys.
It is interesting to watch what will happen next in the Philippines. With both the diplomatic and security services closely aligned with American interests and the population fiercely pro-American, Duterte may find himself isolated due to his firm loyalty to China.
Let’s hope it will not come to a bitter policy clash that could be a disaster for the country’s foreign policy.