When Rodrigo Duterte rose to power five years ago, he promised an independent foreign policy, declaring the Philippines is a friend to all countries and an enemy to none.

The policy was supposed to attract more foreign investments, enhance trade and protect more than 10 million overseas workers scattered around the world.

There are, however, criticisms that Duterte actually pivoted to China, distancing from its oldest security ally and former colonial master, the United States.

Early in his administration, he ordered the military to stop holding military drills in the country’s western seaboard facing the West Philippine Sea to avoid irritating China.

In 2018, he directed the defense and military establishments to stop buying equipment from the United States and other Western countries after Canada canceled a contract to sell combat utility helicopters because of his government’s poor human rights record.

Last year, he sent a notice to Washington terminating the two-decade-old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that allows US troop presence for training and exercises in some parts of the country, including in the volatile Muslim-dominated areas of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi.

Less than a year before he stepped down from power, it appeared Duterte’s pivot to China was all sound and fury — purely rhetoric.

Only five percent of the $24 billion investments promised by Beijing during Duterte’s first visit to China were realized. 

The country remained excluded from Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as well as the maritime silk road.

Except for off-shore gambling operations, Chinese investors are still reluctant to gamble their money and pour capital into the Philippine economy.

Security relations with Washington remained robust with the US State Department affirming US commitment under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) to come to the aid of the Philippines in case of an external attack, including in the disputed West Philippine Sea.

In fact, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was in Manila this week for his first high-profile visit to three Southeast Asia countries to reassure Washington’s allies and partners that it would keep the region stable in the face of Beijing’s attempt to change the status quo and push the Americans out of the strategic waters in South China Sea.

Following Austin’s meeting with Duterte, Malacañang announced that the VFA would no longer be abrogated.

The United Kingdom, a powerful US ally, was also sending a message to China as its most powerful armada — the carrier strike group led by HMS Queen Elizabeth — sailed into the South China Sea this week.

However, Duterte was not so excited about Austin’s visit and the British Royal Navy’s presence in the Philippine Sea. 

He chose to heap praise on Chinese leader Xi Jinping, thanking him for sending 1.5 million vaccines early this year during his sixth and final State-of-the-Nation Address (SONA) before the joint session of the Senate and the House of Representatives at the Batasang Pambansa.

But his friendship with China has not really brought tangible political and economic benefits to the country. Japan gave the Philippines the bulk of loans and grants to improve the country’s creaking and dilapidated infrastructure. The US donated more vaccines and military aid.

With less than a year left in his administration, there is not enough time for Duterte to reap economic, social and political benefits from his friendship with China and other countries outside the US, Japan and other Western powers.

If Duterte really wants to pursue an independent foreign policy, then he should look at the largest grouping of European and Asian countries in terms of population and the economy.

Founded in 2001, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is becoming influential globally because it counts members, like China, India, Pakistan, Russia and four Central Asian states — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

The Philippines can expand its exports, particularly fisheries, marine resources and other agricultural products, as well as attract potential investors. It could also import cheaper fuel products, particularly from Russia.

On the political side, the SCO countries have experience and expertise in fighting Islamist terrorism. The Philippines could benefit from closer counter-terrorism cooperation to defeat the pro-Islamic State Abu Sayyaf militants, through technical assistance and exercises.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) as a bloc has been invited as a guest in its annual meeting and Cambodia is the only Southeast Asian state admitted as a dialogue partner.

East Timor, which has an observer status in Asean, has also applied for observer status in SCO and more countries in the Middle East, South Asia and Eastern Europe are joining the SCO as permanent members, observers, and dialogue partners.

Like Cambodia and East Timor, the Philippines, under Duterte, should consider applying as an observer or dialogue partner to take advantage of potential security and economic cooperation with SCO member-states.

China could probably listen more to SCO member-states if they helped mediate in the maritime dispute between Manila and Beijing.

These countries would have more moral influence than the US and other Western countries, which are more confrontational and are seen as adversaries.

Duterte would not only have another option to deal with China in the South China Sea, participation in the SCO would also expand its trade, investment and security cooperation outside its traditional allies and partners. That would indeed be a genuinely independent foreign policy.