Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, in his last days in power, is reversing his country’s course back towards its longtime ally the United States. The shift comes after years of trying to romance the Chinese.
When he took office in 2016, Duterte wasted little time in insulting U.S. President Barack Obama and signaling his desire to turn away from the United States and towards China and Russia.
“I realign myself in your ideological flow and maybe I would also go to Russia to talk to [President Vladimir] Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world — China, Philippines, Russia,” Duterte said at the time.
After stating that “it was time to say goodbye to Washington,” Duterte set about a number of actions to slowly cut ties with the U.S. and warm relations with China. But his efforts to schmooze Red China have borne little fruit, in fact, they have had the opposite effect. Now Duterte is coming back full circle to repair ties with the Philippines’ long-time ally.
In an editorial piece on Rand Corporation’s website, senior defense analyst Derek Grossman wrote that “Now, just as easily as he flipped one way, he’s flopping the other: His China-friendly policy is effectively over, and he’s doing his best to align the Philippines with the United States again.”
Duterte’s Chinese Affair Backfired
Duterte’s feel-good overtures to China bore nothing but trouble. Duterte’s “Build! Build! Build!” infrastructure plan, which he hoped would take advantage of the Chinese predatory Belt and Road Initiative never bore fruit.
Then, Beijing aggressively pursued its claims to the South China Sea. In 2019 and early 2020, China encircled the Philippines’ Thitu Island with hundreds of militia boats, preventing Filipino authorities from upgrading the island’s runway and making other infrastructure improvements.
In July 2020, the Philippines ‘ Department of Foreign Affairs was ordered to call on China to recognize an international tribunal’s rejection in 2016 of Beijing’s claims to areas of the South China Sea inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Speaking to the UN General Assembly in September 2020, Duterte stated that the ruling was “beyond compromise.”
Earlier in January this year, China authorized its coast guard to fire on any foreign vessels as needed. In March it moored more than 200 Chinese fishing boats — which the Rand report cited as militia ships — at the disputed Whitsun Reef.
As late as February 2020, Duterte still attempted to appease China when he threatened to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that permits U.S. troops to train in the country. But as Winston Churchill said in 1954, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile — hoping it will eat him last.”
However, with the Chinese crocodile at the door, Duterte took a pragmatic approach. He met with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and canceled any plans to terminate the VFA.
A Stronger US in the Pacific
Now the Philippines is moving quickly towards re-energizing ties with Washington and other regional allies.
China is increasingly moving aggressively against Taiwan and pushing its other goals in the South China Sea. American and Filipino officials are moving to re-implement the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which was signed in 2014 and frozen by Duterte in 2016 during his attempts to romance Beijing.
Under this agreement, the Philippines authorize the U.S. military to pre-position equipment, build structures, and rotate forces through five designated bases: Antonio Bautista Air Base, Basa Air Base, Fort Magsaysay, Lumbia Air Base, and Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base.
Filipino Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana identified Palawan island as the site of another planned shared facility. Palawan has a 9,000-foot WWII-era runway that can be used to surveil Chinese missile sites and military bases on artificial islands in the contested waters.
These pre-positioned U.S. military bases would greatly reduce any response time in an emergency should the Chinese attack an American ally in the South China Sea.
China remains the Philippines’ largest trading partner. The Filipino government must now walk a fine line between keeping the trade lines open while protecting its security interests. Duterte thought he could play China against the U.S., but it was he who was played by Beijing which never came through with its many promises.
Now a lame-duck president, Duterte is left holding the bag. The Filipino people, by and large, have always had a great relationship with the U.S. as has the Filipino military. The developments in the Philippines and the South China Sea will bear close watching in the months to come.