During the campaign for the Philippines presidential election on May 9, 2022, candidates have had the opportunity to air their preferences on how the country’s foreign policy should be conducted after Rodrigo Duterte steps down at the end of June after six years in office. Renato Cruz De Castro of De La Salle University writes that Philippine presidents are not free of internal and external constraints to pursue his or her personal foreign-policy agenda. The real issue is whether the new leader can find an appropriate balance in dealing with the two major powers in the Indo-Pacific region – China and the United States.
Presidential contenders – Leni Robredo, left, and Ferdinand Marcos, Jr: The winner will not be able to pursue his or her personal foreign-policy agenda without constraints (Credit: left - lenirobredo.com, right - PNA)
Since the beginning of the 21st century, Philippine foreign policy has undergone fluctuations in terms of how the country balances its relation with China and the United States. During the nine-year term of president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo from 2001 to 2010, the Philippines sought equilibrium in fostering a close defense relationship with the United States in an effort to address the country’s internal security concerns, while cultivating trade and investment opportunities with China. This enabled her administration to pay single-minded attention on neutralizing the various insurgent and terrorist groups challenging the state. At the same time, economic growth during her time in office earned some legitimacy for her unpopular and crisis-ridden administration.
The administration of Arroyo’s successor, Benigno Simeon Aquino III, who was president until 2016, may initially have adopted a balancing policy toward China while fostering a closer security relationship with the US, but eventually abandoned the search for equilibrium. Confronted by China’s maritime expansion in the South China Sea, Aquino pushed for the development of the territorial defense capabilities of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Cognizant of the country’s limited military capabilities, he enhanced the Philippines’ strategic ties with longtime ally, the US, and promoted a close security partnership with Japan. In January 2013, the Philippines countered Chinese expansive claim in the South China Sea by filing a statement of claim against China in an arbitral tribunal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The judges sitting in the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at the Hague ruled in favor of Manila’s case in a judgement issued in July 2016, two weeks into the new administration of Rodrigo Roa Duterte.
Duterte ignored the need to find an equilibrium in Philippine relations with the China and the US. He expressed skepticism about relying on the US., questioning its willingness to defend the Philippines in any armed engagement over its territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea. His administration accepted without question China’s core procedural norms for dealing with the maritime dispute, shelving the sovereignty issue in exchange for Chinese support for Philippine economic development. Duterte’s open contempt for Manila’s alliance with Washington and his positive pronouncements on China and willingness to accept Beijing’s preferred means for managing the South China Sea dispute – direct bilateral talks and joint development – were diametrically at odds with the conventional foreign-policy approach.
The shifts in dealing with China and US from administration to administration has led to the perception that Philippine foreign policy fluctuates depending on the president, with each elected leader having his or her own preferred strategy. Indeed, because of the single six-year term limit, the chief executive certainly plays avital role in influencing the general direction of foreign policy and a president’s personal opinions and priorities are critical.
Consequently, the prevailing assumption is that there is no systemic guarantee of continuity from one administration to the next so foreign policy changes when the president changes. This notion, however, ignores the fact that presidents are not free from internal and external constraints. Furthermore, the paramount issue when it comes to Philippine foreign policy is not the president pursuing her or his personal agenda in the conduct of foreign policy but the administration’s seeking an appropriate balance in dealing with the two major powers in the Indo-Pacific region – China and the US.
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.
Limited hard balancing involves the Philippines’ effective coordination of both military and diplomatic efforts to obtain outcomes contrary to China’s preference of controlling a large portion of the West Philippine Sea and the waters of the first island chain. Limited hard balancing seeks to constrain China’s ability to impose unilaterally its preferences on the Philippines and other littoral states through a limited arms buildup and reliance on a diplomatic coalition of like-minded states that will defend their common interest in maintaining the rules-based international order. This policy is based on finding the equilibrium between managing China’s maritime expansion in the West Philippine Sea with growing US presence in Southeast Asia and its increasing involvement in the dispute that generally favors the Philippines security environment.
Task for the next president: Seeking the right balance
On a passing glance, Robredo and Marcos have opposing foreign policy agendas. On the one hand, the vice president is calling for a return to a stronger security relationship between the Philippines and its traditional security ally, the US, and partners such as Japan, Australia and the EU. She is also adamant with that the Philippines should never entertain any idea of a joint development with China in the West Philippines Sea unless Beijing recognizes the arbitral ruling. Marcos, on the other hand, plans to continue President Duterte’s China friendly external policy and to return the AFP from focusing on the external threat back to giving priority to internal security.
Immediately after one of the candidates is elected, however, the winner will be confronted by the same internal and external constrains as he or she seeks to achieve the delicate balance in foreign policy. These constraints include a Philippine military that has been shifting away from an internal to external security orientation since 2012, a vibrant civil society that is suspicious of Beijing and has a positive view of Washington, the 70-year-old Philippine-US alliance, and a militarily powerful China that is determined to defend its sovereign rights and interests in the waters of the first island chain including the South China Sea.
In navigating through this maze of structural restraints, the new president will have to find that difficult-to-achieve equilibrium by:
a) relying on China preferred means of managing the West Philippine Sea dispute (bilateral consultations, talks on joint development, closer economic cooperation, and the drafting of the ASEAN-China code of conduct in the maritime zone) while developing the means to mitigate Chinese coercive actions by upholding the arbitral ruling, building the capabilities of the AFP and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), and fostering close defense ties with the US and other like-minded security partners; and
b) taking advantage of the economic opportunities from China’s emergence as the second largest economy in the world, while harnessing growing US strategic presence in the Indo-Pacific region and its involvement in the West Philippines Sea dispute, which could well increase as negative sentiment in the US towards Beijing grows.
Darmawan, Aristyo Rizka. (June 10, 2021) “Even the British are Coming: ASEAN and the Internationalization of the South China Sea”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
De Castro, Renato Cruz. (May 26, 2021) “Dazed and Confused: A Divided Duterte Administration Confronts and Appeases China”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Rabena, Aaron Jed. (September 3, 2021) “The Social Implications of Philippines-China Security Competition in the South China Sea”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Renato Cruz De Castro
De La Salle University (DLSU)