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More than money and fish: Duterte’s pivot to China

Image credit: Prachatai (Flickr: Creative Commons)

This year has been marked by the rise of populist and incendiary leaders. One such leader, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, has begun enacting bold foreign policy which is elevating the role of smaller states in the great power competition currently playing out in the Asia-Pacific.

President Duterte recently travelled to Beijing to meet with prominent officials, including President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. After four days, Duterte had secured over $20 billion in funding and investment pledges and an agreement to allow Filipino fishermen to access the atoll surrounding the Scarborough Shoal. The most significant outcome of this meeting was, however, less tangible than money or fish. The Philippines has been a long-standing strategic ally of the United States and remains a crucial element of its pivot to Asia. The meeting in Beijing signals Duterte’s willingness to take advantage of the tense great power competition currently playing out in the Asia-Pacific. Its significance lies in how this precedent will change the way middle powers in the region align themselves with the superpowers in the future.

Duterte swept into power on the back of a policy platform built on development and growth. The Philippines is in desperate need of capital and infrastructure, especially for railways. The country has been largely excluded from China’s regional economic outreach, which is a product of the Philippines’ close security alignment with the US. Indeed, China’s cross-border investment strategy has been driven in part by defence considerations, not just economic ones. By committing over US$15 billion in economic deals to the Philippines, China is replacing the stick with a carrot. It is signalling to other littoral countries that cooperation with China on security issues, such as those in the South China Sea, brings great reward.

Duterte also secured access to the disputed waters around the Scarborough Shoal for Filipino fishermen. Filipino control over the territory has been galvanised by Duterte as a fundamental element of the nationalist narrative that makes him so popular. China began its blockade of Filipino fishing in the disputed waters in 2012, after Filipino naval inspectors attempted to arrest Chinese fishermen who were illegally harvesting endangered species of fish in the area. Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino responded to the blockade by challenging China’s actions at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. He also signed the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the US—a 10-year deal that allows for the presence of US military personnel in the Philippines. Aquino’s response to China’s behaviour in the South China Sea was markedly US-centric.

Duterte has taken a different tack. He has announced that he will suspend annual joint military patrols and exercises with the US and that he wishes to expel all US military personnel from the country within the next two years. As president, he has executive power to abrogate the EDCA. But analysts say this is highly unlikely. The Filipino military is deeply entwined with its US counterpart. Duterte is unlikely to follow through on his threats, which were quickly worked back by members of his government. However, the problem for Washington runs much deeper than Duterte’s incendiary remarks.

The Philippines plays a vital balancing role in the region. As a long-standing ally of the US, it has promoted the idea that the US has a strong and credible ability to secure peace and stability in the region. The value of this balancing power has increased in recent years following both Obama’s Asia pivot and China’s growing maritime capabilities—the latter of which are increasingly commensurate to its territorial ambitions in the East and South China Seas. Duterte’s actions signal to Washington that it must be able to secure the Philippines’ interests should it continue to expect to rely on its ally’s unwavering support. In agreeing to negotiate the re-entry of Filipino fishermen into Scarborough Shoal bilaterally on Beijing’s terms, Duterte prioritised increasing development and growth. The US could not secure these, but China could.

It is not in the Philippines’ best interest to sever its long-standing security ties with the United States. The alliance between the traditional allies is mutually beneficial, providing the US with an important regional ally and the Philippines with the leverage that comes from an alliance with the strongest military power in the world. However, an unusual leader has successfully challenged the status quo of this relationship. Duterte can better realise his goals by appealing to both competing great powers rather than putting all his eggs in Washington’s basket, especially now as the election of Donald Trump casts doubt over the US’ continued strong presence in the region. As recent investment deals between China and Malaysia also show, middle power countries in the region are beginning to recognise and take advantage of the power they hold.

Harriet Goers is currently studying a Bachelor of Economics at the University of Sydney. She is completing her honours thesis, exploring key players’ strategic interests in the South China Sea dispute.

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