The illusion of presidential preference in foreign policy
Judging from the 2022 presidential election campaign, the idea that the elected president’s views and preferences eventually dictate the country’s foreign policy appears to be widely accepted. The popular belief is that whoever wins will determine how the Philippines will handle its territorial dispute with China in the West Philippine Sea and manage the country’s alliance with the US in the context of the raging great-power rivalry in the Indo-Pacific. President Duterte is generally recognized to have gone squarely against public opinion with his relatively friendly stance towards China and thus, his successor must decide how to handle Chinese maritime actions that are putting pressure on smaller littoral Southeast Asian states. This accounts for the fact that many candidates in the election have called for a tougher stance towards Beijing, declaring that they will enforce the 2016 arbitral tribunal judgement that supported the position of the Philippines in rejecting China’s territorial claims, strengthen the country’s ties with the US, and build up the country’s conventional defense capabilities.
Opposition candidate Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo, for example, calls for robust and closer security relations with the US and Manila’s other traditional Western security partners. She has promised robustly to promote the South China Sea ruling. While she is open to joint development with China of the disputed zone, this would only be possible if Beijing recognizes the arbitration judgement. In addition, Robredo has stressed that the Philippines must maintain good relations with the US not just for security reasons but also for the welfare of the Filipinos working and living there. She maintains that the Philippines should strengthen its diplomatic relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and like-minded nations such the United Kingdom, Australia and the member states of the European Union (EU), again not necessarily for security reasons but because of the large concentration of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in those areas.
Other candidates have taken similar positions, notably calling for the modernization of the Philippine military and the fostering of closer security relations with the US. Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno has staked out a centrist approach to the West Philippine Sea issue, emphasizing both the need for engagement with China while strengthening the Philippine military and defense ties with Washington.
The only candidate who stands for continuity of President Duterte’s policy towards China is Ferdinand Marcos, Jr, the only son and second child of his namesake father, who served as president from 1965, ruling as a dictator until he was deposed and taken into exile with his family in the “People Power” civilian and military uprising in 1986. Nicknamed Bongbong and referred to colloquially as “BBM”, the junior Marcos has been a governor, congressman and senator, whose vice-presidential running mate is Duterte’s daughter Sara.
Marcos has stressed the futility of challenging an economic and military powerhouse such as China and the need to maintain robust economic cooperation with this regional power. He seems determined to set aside the South China Sea arbitral ruling and would instead continue the Philippines’ bilateral consultation with China to avoid any conflict. Marcos has said that he will keep intact the alliance with the US intact but would also recalibrate the country’s economic relations with China. During the February 18, 2022, presidential debate, however, he took a middle-of-the-road position when he stated that the country’s relationship with Washington is not something about which Manila can be cavalier about and that he would not cede one square inch to any country, particularly China, promising to continue to engage and work for the national interest.
Despite his centrist pronouncements, Marcos, who is widely regarded as the favorite to win the election, given polls that have consistently shown him with a significant lead (with Robredo a distant second), is expected to follow the Duterte policy but is seen as more fatalistic and defeatist than the outgoing president. This is because the ex-senator has stressed Duterte’s argument that the Philippines would stand to lose in a war against China and so there is no point in modernizing the Philippine military. At the start of his term in 2016, the president had questioned the necessity of an AFP modernization program.
A matter of change – or seeking equilibrium?
Five years into his six-year term, Duterte found that appeasing China is a highly risky policy. It adopted a strategy of limited hard balancing towards Beijing. The goal has been to develop the Philippines’ external defense capabilities in light of the great-power competition in the Indo-Pacific region. It resorted to this approach by continuing some of the Aquino’s policies such as a) building up the AFP’s territorial defense capabilities, b) maintaining its alliance with the US (when previously Duterte had been testy with Washington, particularly when Barack Obama was president), and c) improving its security partnership with Japan. These elements were all aimed at challenging China’s expansion in the South China Sea.
A policy of limited hard balancing requires accepting that China is a major economic and military power in the region and that the Philippines must maintain healthy economic and diplomatic relations with Beijing. Manila, however, must seek to mitigate any adverse externalities of this geopolitical reality, i.e., assertiveness, coercive behavior, and territorial expansion, by developing credible military capabilities and harnessing countervailing coalitions of other major powers designed to thwart or impede specific Chinese policies.
Duterte’s latter-day strategy of limited hard balancing towards China was the result of its realization that a policy of appeasement requires the weaker party (the Philippines) to put its strategic stakes in hands of the more powerful state (China) which is harboring hostile intentions and is bent on exploiting its opponent’s military weakness. The adoption of this approach was also triggered by Chinese coercive actions against AFP units deployed in the West Philippine Sea and the US policy of strategic competition with China, which heated up during the administration of Donald Trump. In December 2018, Philippine National Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana asked Washington to clarify the scope of American commitments under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). In March 2019, then US secretary of state Mike Pompeo assured Manila that any armed attack against any Philippine public vessel in the South China Sea would trigger the mutual-defense obligation.
The Duterte administration has separated economic cooperation from its security efforts with respect to China over the territorial spat as it actively promoted bilateral cooperation. The Philippines still subscribes to China’s preferred goal of managing the disputes – bilateral negotiation, closer economic cooperation and relations, and talks on joint development. At the same time, it has pursued efforts aimed to counter China’s aggressive expansionism by building up the AFP’s territorial defense capabilities and taking advantage of US naval presence in the South China Sea and the growing involvement of other maritime powers such as Japan and Australia. The Duterte administration’s tactics are directed specifically against Chinese maritime expansion (e.g. its tense standoff with China in the Whitsun Reef in early 2021) rather than China’s emergence as a great power in the Indo-Pacific.