Duterte’s Efforts to Align the Philippines With China Face a Backlash


Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s time in office has shown how a charismatic, populist leader can recalibrate a country’s foreign policy almost single-handedly. Under his watch, the Philippines has pursued an “independent” foreign policy, one that is less hostile to China and less dependent on the United States, the Philippines’ sole treaty ally and former colonizer. As a result, the Philippines’ relations with China have entered a new “golden age,” in Duterte’s words.

At the same time, his popularity does not give him unilateral power over the Philippines’ foreign and defense policy—at least not yet. His aggressive push to reorient Philippine foreign policy has been met with stiff resistance at home, especially from the defense establishment and pundit class, which remain wary of China. Indeed, the policymaking landscape remains highly contested, with the president constantly having to incorporate the views of other veto-wielders within the Philippine elite.

“I will be chartering a [new] course [for the Philippines] on its own and will not be dependent on the United States,” Duterte declared shortly after his landslide electoral victory in 2016. True to his word, in the two years since then, Duterte has rapidly transformed the Philippines from one of China’s most vocal critics in Asia to one of its most eager partners. Meanwhile, bilateral relations with the U.S. have reached new lows, as Duterte has questioned the foundations of a century-old alliance amid mounting disagreements over human rights and democracy issues.

This strategic shift reflects Duterte’s ideological predilections, as well as pure realpolitik. Coming of age during the Vietnam War, Duterte spent much of his student days imbibing anti-American sentiments. His college mentor was Jose Maria Sison, the founder of the Philippines’ contemporary communist movement. Steeped in the politics of Mindanao, the second-largest island in the Philippines that is home to a long-running separatist movement, Duterte also cultivated close relations with insurgent leaders such as the Moro nationalist ideologue Nur Misuari.

Duterte saw the persistent presence of U.S. military personnel in Mindanao as a violation of the Philippines’ sovereignty by a neocolonial power. During his two-decades-long tenure as the mayor of Davao, Mindanao’s largest city, he cultivated relatively tense and often even hostile relations with the United States. Things came to a head in the 2000s when, after a series of incidents involving Americans that he felt underscored U.S. encroachment on Philippine sovereignty, he became the first local government official to effectively block the annual Balikatan exercises with the U.S. military in his backyard.

In Duterte’s worldview, China is the future while America is the past—the former an undeniable geographical reality for the Philippines and the latter an overbearing geopolitical anomaly. He showcased this stance when he ran for the presidency, accusing the ruling liberal elite in Manila of not only corruption and ineptitude but also subservience to the West, namely the United States. Thus, he saw his landslide election victory as a popular endorsement of his views on foreign policy.

Within months in power, Duterte achieved historically high approval ratings and relished the en masse defection of the political establishment to his ranks. While this boosted his confidence in overhauling the country’s foreign policy, he at first deferred to his pragmatic streak by exploring an equilateral balancing strategy toward America and China. He sought relatively cordial ties with both superpowers, hoping to play them against each other for strategic gains.