Since his ascent to presidency, Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly threatened to upend Philippine foreign policy. In stark contrast to his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, he has as frequently lavished China with praise as he has lambasted America with verve and venom.
Highly popular at home, and notorious the world over, Duterte has often been portrayed as an oriental despot with an unshakable grip on the Philippine state. Yet, his ability to unilaterally reshape the country’s external relations has been grossly exaggerated by both domestic and international observers.
There is a limit to how far the Filipino leader can downgrade his country’s alliance with America and, accordingly, upgrade strategic relations with China. This is mainly because of the profound influence of the Philippine security establishment — namely, the cabal of conventional-minded generals, diplomats, politicians and opinion makers — which is as deeply entwined with Washington as it is suspicious of Beijing.
While the charismatic Duterte has managed to convince a growing proportion of the Philippine society that America is not a reliable partner, he has fallen short of convincing his generals, the political class and the broader population that China is a trustworthy neighbor.
A tougher stance
Amid growing Chinese maritime assertiveness within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zones, both in the South China Sea and the Pacific, the Filipino president, just as I predicted, has come under unprecedented pressure to adopt a tougher stance against Beijing. The Philippines’ honeymoon with China is far from over, but a full restoration of bilateral ties looks increasingly unlikely.
“We tried to be friends with everybody but we have to maintain our jurisdiction now, at least the areas under our control [in South China Sea],” declared Rodrigo Duterte during a recent visit to a military camp in the western province Palawan, which is close to the dispute Spratly chain of islands.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and top defense officials are deeply worried about China’s sprawling network of airstrips and military bases nearby. By all indications, it is just a matter of time before China deploys fighter jets and advanced weaponries to its artificially created islands.
“What’s ours now, at least let’s get them and make a strong point there that it is ours,” Duterte continued to the obvious delight of his pumped up soldiers, who have been awaiting the green light to step up the Philippines’ eroding strategic footprint in the Spratly chain of islands for years.
He then instructed the AFP to fully occupy Philippine-claimed land features, step up patrols in the country’s traditional fisheries grounds and refurbish facilities on Thitu Island, which has been fully occupied by the Southeast Asian country over the past four decades.
Manila claims nine land features in the Spratly Islands, mostly reefs and low-tide elevations with the exception of Thitu, an island-sized rock that has hosted an airstrip since 1977. Filipino strongman Ferdinand Marcos (1965–86) was the first regional leader to establish a modern, 1,300-meter-long runway on disputed land features in the area.