Deciphering Rodrigo Duterte's China Triangulation

Campaign poster for Rodrigo Duterte’s presidential campaign. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/@Judgefloro

The Philippine president has been careful to build new bridges without sacrificing old alliances.

“I’ve realigned myself in [China’s] ideological flow … there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way,” exclaimed Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte during his four-day trip to China. Not short of theatrics, he also bid “goodbye” to America, vowing “separation” from the Philippines’ sole treaty ally.

As far as rhetoric is concerned, we are witnessing potentially the biggest overnight volte-face in history of geopolitics. In a matter of months, the Philippines has gone from China’s leading regional critic to, at least verbally, a potentially ally, with the century-old U.S.-Philippine alliance suddenly hanging in the balance.

This was Duterte’s first major state visit, breaking with a long tradition of Philippine leaders visiting Washington and Tokyo ahead of Beijing. And he achieved practically everything he sought. Duterte managed to secure $24 billion in economic pledges from China. Around $15 billion are business-to-business deals between Filipino business tycoons, mostly of Chinese descent, and their mainland counterparts. The remaining $9 billion are soft loans, a third of which will be devoted to infrastructure investment in the Philippines, including Duterte’s home island of Mindanao, which has been racked by a four-decade-long conflict and the country’s highest incidence of poverty.

To Duterte’s delight, China also offered assistance to his signature “war on drugs” campaign, which has drawn heavy criticism from Washington and rapidly become a huge bone of contention in bilateral relations with Manila. The two former rivals also managed to arrive at a set of confidence-building measures in the South China Sea, including hotlines between their Coast Guard forces and a provisional joint fishing arrangement in the Scarborough Shoal. The neighbors are also negotiating a twenty-five-year military agreement, which allows Manila to purchase Chinese weapons on favorable terms. Slowly but surely, Asia hands in Washington are beginning to ask: “Who lost the Philippines?”

As I argued months earlier, the Philippines’ firebrand leader is interested in overhauling his country’s foreign policy. And this is precisely what he has been trying to achieve, albeit gradually. So far, speculations have focused on whether he will sever ties with America in favor of an alternative alliance with China. A more careful analysis, however, suggests that Duterte is more interested in engaging fellow Asian economies, particularly regional giants such as China and Japan. Meanwhile, he realizes the indispensability of his country’s alliance with America, especially for the powerful security establishment in the Southeast Asian country. Thus, the Duterte administration may eventually end up adopting a triangular balancing strategy towards Japan, China and America.

Duterte the Realist?

The Philippine leader’s erratic behavior and seemingly contradictory rhetoric has raised eyebrows at home and the world over, including in China. As one prominent Chinese scholar succinctly put it, “[Duterte] still could change his words in the future. . . . In the future, nothing is certain.”

Yet, the Philippines’ strategic recalibration—minus Duterte’s foul mouth and over-the-top tirades—isn’t without its own reasons. For four full years, the Philippines stood up to China like none of its neighbors. After the Scarborough Shoal crisis, which led to Chinese occupation of the Philippine-claimed territory, the Southeast Asian country made the unprecedented decision to take China to court. It was an extremely risky and lonely choice.

In response, China imposed a de facto investment siege on the Philippines. There were also restrictions imposed on Philippine banana exports as well as a travel advisory to dissuade Chinese tourists from visiting the tropical nation, which is home to one of the world’s most scenic beaches. This partly explains why the Philippines’ terms of trade with China have deteriorated over the years, Chinese tourist inflow has been anemic and Chinese investments in the country have been so limited. Astonishingly, the Philippines invests more in China than the other way around.