When Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016, he shocked the world by declaring his “separation” from the United States, the Philippines’ long-standing ally and former colonial master, and his “realignment” with China, the Philippines’ historic rival and rising power.
Duterte said that the US had “lost” and that China was the “only hope” for his country’s development. He also said that he would “set aside” the 2016 arbitral ruling that invalidated China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea, where the Philippines and China have overlapping territorial and maritime disputes.
Duterte’s foreign policy shift was driven by his personal antipathy towards the US, his pragmatic calculation of China’s economic and strategic benefits, and his nationalist aspiration of pursuing an independent and balanced foreign policy.
Duterte sought to improve the Philippines’ relations with China, which had deteriorated under his predecessor Benigno Aquino III, who filed the arbitration case against China. Duterte also sought to reduce the Philippines’ dependence on the US, which he accused of interfering in his domestic affairs, especially his controversial war on drugs.
However, Duterte’s foreign policy shift also faced backlash and resistance from various sectors, such as the Philippine public, the military, the opposition, the media, and the civil society, who were wary of China’s intentions and actions, and who valued the Philippines’ alliance and friendship with the US.
Duterte’s foreign policy shift also faced challenges and limitations from the realities and dynamics of the region and the world, such as the rising tensions and competition between the US and China, the increasing assertiveness and aggressiveness of China in the South China Sea, and the growing solidarity and cooperation among the Southeast Asian countries and other stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific.
As a result, Duterte gradually reversed his foreign policy shift, and restored and enhanced the Philippines’ relations with the US, while maintaining and managing the Philippines’ relations with China. Duterte retracted his decision to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which facilitates the large-scale joint military exercises between the Philippines and the US.
He also thanked the US for its COVID-19 pandemic-related assistance, especially the donation of millions of vaccines. He also invoked the 2016 arbitral ruling in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly, and affirmed the Philippines’ sovereign rights in the South China Sea.
The prospects and the future of the Philippines’ foreign policy
The Philippines’ foreign policy under Duterte has been marked by volatility and unpredictability, as well as pragmatism and flexibility. Duterte has shown his willingness and ability to adjust and adapt his foreign policy to the changing circumstances and interests of his country. He has also shown his openness and receptiveness to the views and voices of his people and his partners.
The Philippines’ foreign policy after Duterte will depend on the outcome and the direction of the 2022 presidential election, which will determine the successor and the legacy of Duterte. The candidates for the presidency have different views and approaches on the Philippines’ foreign policy, especially on the Philippines’ relations with the US and China.
Some candidates, such as Senator Manny Pacquiao and Vice President Leni Robredo, have expressed their support for strengthening the Philippines’ alliance with the US, and for defending the Philippines’ sovereignty and rights in the South China Sea. Other candidates, such as Senator Bong Go and Mayor Sara Duterte, have expressed their support for continuing Duterte’s foreign policy of maintaining friendly and cooperative relations with both the US and China.
The Philippines’ foreign policy after Duterte will also depend on the actions and the responses of the US and China, as well as the ASEAN and the international community. The US and China will continue to compete and cooperate in the region and the world, and will seek to influence and engage the Philippines and other countries in the Indo-Pacific.
The ASEAN and the international community will continue to play a role and a responsibility in maintaining and promoting the peace and the stability in the region and the world, and will seek to uphold and enforce the international law and the rules-based order in the South China Sea and beyond.
The Philippines’ foreign policy after Duterte will face challenges and opportunities, as well as responsibilities and obligations, in the region and the world. The Philippines will have to balance and harmonize its interests and values, as well as its relations and partnerships, with the US, China, and other countries and actors.
The Philippines will also have to contribute and participate in the regional and global affairs, such as the COVID-19 pandemic recovery, the climate change mitigation, and the human rights protection. The Philippines will also have to pursue and achieve its own development and security, as well as its identity and dignity, as a sovereign and democratic nation.