Philippine foreign policy has attracted quite a bit of attention in the international scene with the sudden turnabout in the way that the Administration of President Rodrigo R. Duterte approached foreign policy. Three points have attracted attention that seemed to characterize this pursuit. First, was the expressed antipathy of the Philippine President towards the European Union and the United States (especially when Barack Obama was still the President of the US). This was manifested in the “colorful language” used by President Duterte to insult either whether expressed in a humorous or agitated manner. This was particularly surprising in relation to the United States with whom the Philippines has had a historic strategic partnership. The apparent turn-about, however, is emphasized even more by what some have referred to as the “pivot to China.” This is in connection with the push closer to China after the years of bad relations that was a legacy of the Aquino Administration. These two developments, in turn, have become a key factor in the diminished significance of the existing regional architecture built around multilateral arrangements, principally economic in nature but also with an emphasis on security. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which in the last 30 years had grown to become one of the most important planks of the Philippines’ regional engagements, is losing salience in the course of intensifying competition between the US and China. The confluence of these three factors has been helped along by and in turn contributed to the orientation of the direction of the Duterte Administration’s foreign policy. Since 2016, the Administration has expressedly characterized its approach as one that is consistent with the aspiration to pursue an “independent foreign policy.”

Article II, Section 7 of the Philippine Constitution of 1987 makes it clear that the Philippine state: “. . .  shall pursue an independent foreign policy. In its relations with other states the paramount consideration shall be national sovereignty, territorial integrity, national interest, and the right to self-determination.”

This provision was largely a reaction to the belief (both locally and internationally) that the historic and strategic relationship the Philippines has had with the US has been less than equal. During the Cold War, there were strong voices in the Philippines advocating a more “equidistant” policy towards the competing superpowers, i.e. the US and the Soviet Union. Despite these voices, the Philippines traditionally leaned towards the side of the US on geopolitical and geo-economic issues. Since the end of the Cold War, there had been some tweaking on the nature of this relationship (particularly when the Philippine Senate refused to ratify the renewal of a basing agreement that would have allowed the US military to continued access to Philippine military facilities). But the bilateral relations with the US remained the cornerstone of Philippine foreign policy. It has also remained the basis for the continuing self-doubt regarding the autonomy of the Philippines in its foreign policy-decisions. This is particularly the case on matters of external security.

External security in the case of the Philippines since the decision not to renew the Military Bases Agreement in 1991 has centered around the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the US, President George W. Bush declared the Philippines a major non-NATO ally which made it eligible for:

  • Entry into cooperative research and development projects with the Department of Defense (DoD) on a shared-cost basis;
  • Participation in certain counter-terrorism initiatives;
  • Purchase of depleted uranium anti-tank rounds;
  • Priority delivery of military surplus (ranging from rations to ships);
  • Possession of War Reserve Stocks of DoD-owned equipment that are kept outside of American military bases;
  • Loans of equipment and materials for cooperative research and development projects and evaluations;
  • Permission to use American financing for the purchase or lease of certain defense equipment;
  • Reciprocal training;
  • Expedited export processing of space technology; and
  • Permission for the country’s corporations to bid on certain DoD contracts for the repair and maintenance of military equipment outside the US.

After 1991, the country’s foreign policy gave increasing emphasis to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This reflected the emphasis given to development diplomacy in the aftermath of the Cold War. As a founding member of ASEAN, the country sought to be a full participant in the economic growth trend that characterized the grouping’s economic performance in the late 1980s and the 1990s.

Illustration by Luciano Sardea Ramirez

Since 2010, the Philippines has experienced an economic renaissance, which saw it outperform most economies in the region, with only China’s economy growing at a rate that was faster. Yet, Philippine economic growth and economic activity had little to do with ASEAN. Instead, a key component of Philippine economic performance has been the service sector, particularly the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) operations, and the contribution made by Filipinos who have gone overseas to work. It has been acknowledged that Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) have been largely responsible for keeping the Philippine economy above water during the times when this was vulnerable to fluctuations in the global market. In 2017, the money remitted by OFWs amounted to more than USD28B, or close to 10% of the Philippine GDP. While the “export” of Philippine labor has had mixed consequences (good for the economy but problematic for social well-being), it has become a matter of personal choice for Filipinos to seek work outside the Philippines. According to the Philippine Statistical Authority (PSA), there were in 2017 alone, over 2.34 million Filipinos who left the country to work overseas. Of these, 2.27 million were under contract. An astounding 53.7% of these were women mostly between 25-44 years of age. Of this number, 85.5% went to Asian destinations, with a very large number going to the Middle East. Here, as the Bard said, lies the rub.

The problem of OFWs is their vulnerability to abuses both at a personal level (with their employers) and at a systemic level (with the host society in general). A growing awareness of abuses committed against Filipinos in the households or work places they are employed at have become crisis points in diplomatic relations between the Philippines and the host countries. At the same time, others have found themselves requiring assistance because of accusations of having committed a crime. In 2015, Senator Manny Pacquiao pushed for an inventory of cases against Filipino overseas workers all over the world in order to have a sense of the scale of assistance required. On the part of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), this issue area has taken up much of their resources. The problem continues to fester because more and more Filipinos are going overseas to find work, and Philippine Presidential Administrations have been too concerned about the economic benefits of remittances (not to speak of the safety valve that the OFW policy has created for potential political ramifications of lack of suitable employment for a growing labor force) to be aggressive in how they deal with host countries where these abuses have become normal.

These were the areas of status quo in the country’s foreign policy that the emergence of President Rodrigo R. Duterte challenged. President Duterte campaigned on the slogan of “Change is Coming!” In the close to three years that he has been in power, what has changed? Has anything changed?

Since 2010, the Philippines has experienced an economic renaissance, which saw it outperform most economies in the region, with only China’s economy growing at a rate that was faster.

With regards to the status quo issues presented above, little has really changed in the country’s foreign policy even with the Duterte Administration taking over. Philippine-US security relations remain strong even with the hiccups over President Duterte’s insults against the US in general, and President Barack Obama in particular. At the same time, the OFW issue continues to bedevil the country’s leadership. In one area, however, Duterte’s foreign policy has created quite an impression.  And its starting point is a classic illustration of the adage that “all politics is local.” His principal guiding post is the economic strategy of “Build, Build, Build.” This refers to an ambitious plan to initiate a USD180 billion building spree spread across ten years. This plan includes the building of six airports, nine railways, three bus rapid transits, 32 roads and bridges, and four seaports, among a number of things. Financing this major infrastructure development program is going to be a huge undertaking. Sourcing funds locally (such as with tax reform under the passage of the Tax Reform Acceleration and Inclusion Act) is a key part of the strategy, but is definitely not enough. Official Development Assistance (ODA) is being sought from key donor partners. The Duterte foreign policy thrust should be seen in the context of this local development thrust.

A second consideration for the Duterte Administration is the need to redistribute wealth, de-centralize policy-making and de-concentrate wealth. Thus, a key part of the entire development strategy is political reform aimed at deepening the autonomy of local government units that had been granted under the Local Government Code of 1991 to the point of promoting a shift in the political structure of the Philippines from a unitary one to one that is federal in form. Again, the whole idea is based on the need to pursue a development strategy that is responsive to the needs on the ground. The “Build, Build, Build” program and the pursuit of political structural reform both play out in Duterte’s development program with a significant part of the former being identified as projects for areas with underdeveloped infrastructure and high incidence of poverty such as Mindanao. These main consideration shape Duterte’s foreign policy priorities.

Under the context of this development strategy, Duterte’s first foreign policy priority has been the courting of China. This was not an easy thing to do as the nadir of Philippine-China relations had been reached during the Aquino Administration. Yet, Duterte sought to assuage China of his good intentions and within the first six months of his Presidency was not only able to turn relations with China around, but has nearly turned the geopolitical situation in the region on its head.

Within a month after the accession of Duterte to the Presidency, the Permanent Court of Arbitration came out with its decision on a case brought before it by the Aquino Administration regarding the West Philippine Sea territorial dispute that was at the center of the poor relations between the Philippines and China in the years before Duterte came to power. The tribunal came out with its decision on July 12, 2016, and its fundamental points noted that:

There was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources in excess of the rights provided by the Convention within the sea areas falling within the nine-dash line

High-tide features in the disputed area are legally “rocks” that do not generate an exclusive economic zone or continental shelf. As well, the Tribunal held that the Convention does not allow for a group of features to collectively generate maritime zones.

Chinese activities preventing Filipino fishermen from approaching Scarborough Shoal to fish around its waters were deemed illegal. As well, the large-scale reclamation conducted by China had caused severe harm to the coral reef environment thus violating its commitment under the Convention to protect the marine environment and failed to fulfill diligence on the poaching of endangered and protected species harvested by Chinese fishermen.

It was also decided that China had violated its obligations to refrain from aggravating the dispute during the settlement process.

In a key decision that became the poster event for the “pivot to China,” the Duterte Administration decided to not to bring up the Arbitral Award in its pursuit of improving relations with China. President Duterte claimed that this did not mean that the Philippines was giving up on its claim but that this will be raised before his Administration ends at “an appropriate time.” In the meantime, the Philippines would seek to reap the economic benefits of improved relations with China.

A number of changes driven by improvements in relations with China have become evident in the last two years. Chinese official foreign direct investment to the Philippines has been on the uptick, as well the number of tourist entries from China. Official development assistance has not reached the levels at the beginning of the Aquino Administration, but has definitely been moving up at a modest rate. What has changed significantly is the trade imbalance with China, which has grown dramatically, more than doubling the trade deficit in 2015. This, however, would hardly seem to be an active promotion of “independence” in our foreign policy—replacing one form of dependence and courting another.

…Duterte sought to assuage China of his good intentions and within the first six months of his Presidency was not only able to turn relations with China around, but has nearly turned the geopolitical situation in the region on its head.

There is something to be said about Duterte’s pursuit of better relations with China as the crowning consideration of his foreign policy. For all the fawning that has been done, however, the numbers shown in the bilateral relations are quite underwhelming. In the case of trade, it would even seem that the Philippines is becoming a dumping ground for surplus Chinese products. Beyond questions of numbers, however, is the unresolved issue of the Arbitral Decision and other issues related to the South China Sea issue. The question that needs to be asked here is what are the costs to the country’s dignity of this pursuit of Chinese economic largesse? Beyond the Duterte Administration, what does the Philippines look forward to in its relations with China? More importantly, how does this reflect on the Philippines’ pursuit of an independent foreign policy? — HERMAN JOSEPH KRAFT

*Herman Joseph Kraft is an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of the Philippines, and currently a research fellow at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung, Taiwan under the Taiwan Fellowship Program


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