Since ascending to power last June, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has sought, with characteristic sound and fury, to signal the end of Manila’s century-old subservience to Washington. Shortly before his inauguration, the tough-talking president promised that he would “not be dependent on the United States.” When former U.S. President Barack Obama attacked Duterte’s human rights record, the Filipino leader told the Americans to “go to hell” and threatened to abrogate the 1951 U.S.–Filipino defense treaty. On multiple occasions, Duterte has cursed at top U.S. officials, including Obama.

Even as he has sparred with the United States, Duterte has worked to normalize the Philippines’ relations with China, which had frayed under his predecessor. He has pursued defense cooperation with Russia and praised President Vladimir Putin as his “favorite hero.” And during a high-profile visit to Beijing last October, Duterte—who has dubiously claimed to have Chinese ancestry—announced his “separation from the United States” while declaring his intention to join Beijing’s “ideological flow,” forming an alliance with China and Russia “against the world.”

Indeed, Duterte has made a series of significant concessions in order to improve relations with China. He has scaled back joint military exercises with the United States, barred U.S. warships from using Filipino bases to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea, and effectively soft-pedaled the Philippines’ South China Sea arbitration victory over China by not raising it in international fora.

Such behavior and rhetoric would appear to suggest a radical reconfiguration of the Philippines’ strategic thinking. Duterte is often seen from the outside as a charismatic strongman in the mold of Putin or Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—a quasi-dictator powerful enough to transform his country’s relations with the West. At the same time, however, the Philippines’ public statements on foreign policy have been erratic. Despite Duterte’s conflict-avoidance regarding the South China Sea, Filipino diplomats often raise the issue in regional organizations such as ASEAN, and the country’s military has maintained full-spectrum security cooperation with Washington. The mercurial Duterte has added to the confusion by oscillating between patriotic bravado to appease his domestic base, on the one hand, and accommodating rhetoric toward China, on the other.

What is clear upon careful analysis is that Duterte cannot unilaterally dictate the direction of Filipino foreign policy. Although highly popular with voters, he still faces stiff resistance from the country’s powerful defense establishment. This establishment, a cabal made up of conservative generals, diplomats, statesmen, and opinion-makers in media and the academy, places a high premium on the Philippines’ alliance with the United States and remains deeply suspicious of China. Unlike Duterte, it is eager to preserve relations with Washington and is concerned that rapprochement with Beijing could undermine Filipino territorial interests, particularly in the hotly contested South China Sea. It is the resulting impasse—the back-and-forth struggle between Duterte and his more conventionally minded generals—that largely explains the melange of contradictory and confusing foreign policy statements coming out of Manila.

A POST-AMERICAN ASIA?

Duterte’s thinking about foreign policy is premised on the view that the Philippines is entering a post–American world in which China will be the dominant force in Asia. Although he recognizes the importance of the South China Sea, where Beijing and Manila have clashed over their overlapping territorial claims, he prefers not to press his case too hard. In his view, the Philippines has neither the military strength nor the requisite U.S. support to counter China’s maritime ambitions. He has thus sought to downplay, often controversially, his country’s disputes with China.

Duterte’s thinking about foreign policy is premised on the view that the Philippines is entering a post–American world.

Duterte has focused instead on deepening trade and investment relations with China, whose leaders have attempted to ply the Philippines with tens of billions of dollars in big-ticket infrastructure projects. Having already visited China once, Duterte is expected to return in May for the One Road, One Belt summit, where he will speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping about Beijing’s large-scale investments.

At the same time, Duterte deeply respects the military, which has removed two Filipino presidents in recent memory, and which is considerably friendlier toward Washington than it is toward Beijing. At one point, Duterte openly confessed his concern that the “the military would oust me” if he fully ignored their wishes on sensitive issues. He has therefore attempted to win the hearts and minds of the men in the barracks. In his early days in office, he visited 14 military camps in less than a month, and has expanded soldiers’ benefits, increased their salaries, upgraded their weapons, and deployed his characteristic personal touch to gain their affection—hugging and kissing injured soldiers and promising to take care of their families.

Anti-aircraft guns in Manila, April 2017.
Erik De Castro / Reuters

Based on my own conversations with leading Filipino defense officials, it seems that Duterte’s vision of a post–American order in Asia is only partially shared by members of the national security apparatus. Many in the Filipino military have been schooled in Western military academies, spent decades training with American soldiers, and have long relied on U.S. intelligence, logistical support, and weapons. The country’s defense establishment, moreover, is deeply worried about China’s sprawling network of airstrips and military bases across the South China Sea. They would prefer to resist Chinese maritime assertiveness by expanding military cooperation with the United States and, if necessary, by using the arbitration case as leverage in a tougher diplomatic approach toward China.

A HOUSE DIVIDED

The Philippines’ internal tension was on full display in recent months, as Duterte tussled with senior defense officials and diplomats over the direction of the country’s China policy.

Take, for instance, the public dispute over Chinese maritime activity in the Benham Rise, an undersea ridge in the Western Pacific that is part of the Philippines’ continental shelf. As part of its regional charm offensive, Beijing deployed two senior officials, Commerce Minister Zhong Shan and Vice Premier Wang Yang, to Manila in March in order to discuss Chinese investments in the Philippines. In response, Duterte thanked China, quite sentimentally, for “loving [the Philippines] and helping [it] survive the rigors of this life.”

Duterte cannot unilaterally dictate the direction of Filipino foreign policy.

Within days of Duterte’s statement, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, a former general and diplomatic attaché to the United States, publicly raised alarm bells over suspicious Chinese activities months earlier in the Benham Rise. Lorenzana openly accused China of conducting illegal oceanographic research within the Philippines’ waters, raising the possibility that the vessels may have been searching for places to deploy Chinese submarines.

Lorenzana’s bolt-from-the-blue announcement provoked a nationwide uproar, prompting prominent magistrates, legislators, former diplomats, and media personalities to call on Duterte to take a tougher stance on China. Duterte responded that he had given Beijing permission to conduct marine scientific research in the Benham Rise—a claim that was openly contradicted by Lorenzana and Enrique Manalo, the Philippines’ foreign secretary. One opposition lawmaker even filed a complaint calling for the president’s impeachment on the grounds that Duterte had failed to defend the country’s sovereignty.

Days later, Duterte faced a similar backlash when he declared that he “cannot stop China” from building facilities on the Scarborough Shoal, a contested land feature that lies just over 100 nautical miles away from the Filipino coast. Duterte’s words stood in stark contrast to comments made by Lorenzana in February, which had indicated that any Chinese construction activity on the shoal would be “very, very disturbing” and  “unacceptable” to the Philippines. Key statesmen cautioned the president against making any statement that could undermine the country’s claim over the shoal.

Under pressure, Duterte has attempted to bolster his national security credentials. He has claimed to have received assurances from Beijing that there will be no construction activity on the shoal. He has promised to personally plant the Filipino flag on Thitu, a disputed island in the South China Sea with a large Filipino community and its own mayor. Duterte has instructed the Filipino military to occupy and fortify its positions in the Spratly chain of islands, whose ownership is contested by Beijing. And just last week, Duterte dispatched his top generals, along with Lorenzana, to the South China Sea in order to assert the Philippines’ territorial claims there. He has also allocated $35 million for upgrading civilian and military facilities in the area.

KEEPING HIS COOL

Given his previous rhetoric on China, Duterte’s recent actions have undoubtedly been calculated moves to refurbish his patriotic credentials, appease the Filipino public, and keep critics at bay. And in fact, they have at least partially worked—Duterte’s assertiveness has helped ease public concerns over his apparently cozy relations with China.

Today, ten months into Duterte’s presidency, the Philippines has begun to change its foreign policy, but not nearly as radically as its president’s rhetoric would suggest. Instead, the country is gradually adopting a hedging strategy toward China—a dynamic cocktail combining diplomatic engagement with military deterrence. Despite his rhetoric, Duterte seems to have realized the dangers of moving too close to China, which is deeply mistrusted by the Filipino defense establishment and by the broader populace. The strongman is not as powerful as he appears.

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