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Duterte Shakes Up Philippine Foreign Policy

by Guest Blogger for Joshua Kurlantzick
October 3, 2016

duterte-foreign-policy-2 Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks during a news conference in Davao city, southern Philippines on August 21, 2016. (Lean Daval Jr/Reuters)


Richard Javad Heydarian is an assistant professor in political science at De La Salle University in Manila, and, most recently, the author of Asia’s New Battlefield: The U.S., China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific.

The Philippines’ controversial president, Rodrigo Duterte, has once again grabbed global headlines with his inflammatory statements. This time, he reportedly invoked Hitler to underscore his commitment to continuing a ‘shock and awe’ campaign against illegal drugs, which has provoked global outcry. In response to a chorus of international condemnation, senior Philippine officials were quick to dismiss Duterte’s latest off-the-cuff remarks as a joke that should not be taken literally. Recognizing his mistake, the president himself apologized “profoundly and deeply” and clarified that there “was never an intention to derogate” the Holocaust.

With suspected drug users and sellers surrendering to the government, there is growing pressure on the Duterte administration to adopt a more public health-centered approach on the issue. And the cash-strapped Philippine government is in need of significant foreign assistance to deal with the public health crisis. Some foreign actors have responded, despite Duterte’s criticism of them. Though at the receiving end of Duterte’s tirades—he has called the European Union “hypocrites” and sworn at them—the European Union has stepped up its assistance for new drug rehabilitation centers in the Philippines. The United Nations could also pursue common ground with Manila in addressing the country’s real drugs problems by focusing on augmenting the Philippines’ limited rehabilitation capacity for drug users.

Meanwhile, Duterte has also forcefully questioned the foundations of Philippine foreign policy, taking aim at existing security agreements with the United States, and most recently threatening to cancel the new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). In the past month, Duterte has called for the expulsion of U.S. Special Forces from the southern island of Mindanao, where they have been advising their Philippine counterparts on counterterror operations since 2001. He also has called for the cancellation of joint patrols with foreign powers within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone in international waters, and for the termination of U.S.-Philippine joint military exercises. Duterte has further suggested that, while reducing security ties to the United States, the Philippines could bolster links with China and Russia.

A major problem, however, is that it is not clear whether any of these comments are instances of Duterte-style bluster and bravado, or actual policy statements, and it is hard to know how to confirm which comments indicate policy shifts. So far, there has been no confirmation from the presidential palace that the Philippine government has formally requested these changes in the security relationship with the United States. Similarly, despite suggesting that Manila would bolster security ties to Moscow and Beijing, Duterte subsequently clarified that he was mainly seeking closer trade and investment ties with Russia and China. But reports suggest that Manila and Beijing are exploring a 25-year military deal that might allow Manila to purchase advanced Chinese weaponry.

There are three possible and interrelated explanations for Duterte’s latest remarks regarding Manila’s security relationship with Washington. First, his comments, while not necessarily meaning an end to joint exercises, are still consistent with his geopolitical vision of the country as more balanced between major foreign powers. Unlike many Philippine politicians, including his predecessor Benigno Aquino III, Duterte has consistently emphasized his preference for an “independent” foreign policy, which, to him, apparently means less dependence on the United States. Duterte believes that his country has been too subservient to Washington, and has repeatedly expressed his doubts about whether the U.S. military would be willing to come to the Philippines’ rescue in an event of war with China in the South China Sea.

Second, Duterte’s latest tirades could be a means of expressing his frustration with Washington over human rights issues. The Obama administration—in addition to many international and domestic human rights organizations—has progressively stepped up its criticism of Duterte’s war on drugs campaign as the casualty count rises and Manila has no clear strategy for dealing with the public health ramifications of the growing drug crackdown. This criticism has, unsurprisingly, not gone over well with the blunt president, who has accused America of interfering in domestic Philippine affairs.

Finally, these remarks could be part of his diplomatic charm-offensive vis-à-vis Beijing. Later this month, Duterte will make his first state visit to China, where the two neighbors are expected to negotiate the outlines of cooperation over the South China Sea, ranging from a joint fisheries agreement regarding the Scarborough Shoal to the establishment of a China-Philippine emergency hotline, as well as other confidence building measures. In exchange, Duterte may tinker with existing Philippine-U.S. security agreements. It is possible, for instance, that the Philippines may relocate annual Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) exercises from the South China Sea to a less controversial site.

It is doubtful though whether Duterte will move ahead with complete severance of existing security agreements, such as the new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) or the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), or the 1951 Philippine-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty. Actually cutting these links this could alienate the Philippine armed forces and security establishment, which is close to and reliant on its U.S. counterparts, as well as undermine the president’s appeal among the population. Surveys consistently show that residents of the Philippines have the most pro-U.S. views of any country in the world. The United States is also home to millions of Filipinos, and is the biggest source of remittances, and one of the largest investors and trade partners of the Philippines. Any significant downgrade in bilateral ties would surely alienate a significant portion of the population.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Zhuubaajie

    What is the chance that America would fund the Filipino economy to the tune of US$200 billion in the next 50 years? ZERO. But the chances are pretty good with China. Duterte is not leading his country to the brink; he is going to the bank instead.

    Ahead of the trip to Beijing on October 20, Prez. Duterte talks about stopping joint patrols with the hegemon (services no longer needed), AND about doing 120 year leases on farmland.

    So for setting aside sovereignty conflicts for 120 years, the two nations could perhaps explore:
    1. Joint use of certain fisheries;
    2. China builds Duterte a railroad or three, on credit (instead of lending it to America, lend the money to the Filipinos);
    3. Split royalties on development of undersea resources, with funds to be first used in the infrastructure building above;
    4. China leases 500,000 hectares of Filipino farm land for 120 years, with focus on exports; and
    5. The two nations plan on doubling bilateral trade in 5 years.
    Everyone gets richer.

    Then as the Filipino economy doubles in 5 years, the nations can talk about further collaboration all around, drug eradication, terrorism control, etc.

  • Posted by Soren Skye

    I am currently in the Philippines doing freelance forecasting. I am really amazed at how, in Manila and most major cities, the political atmosphere is so different from what I expected coming in. It is quiet evident western media has no idea of what is really happening in the country.

    Duterte is widely admired not only for his “war on drugs”. He has initiated labor reform, talked peace with Muslim and communist insurgents, and prosecuted corrupt government officials.

    I was at a police event and had first-hand experience of how his braggadocious talk triggered guffaws and laughter. Cultural differences may have caused foreign observers to take offense but listening to him, I could sense honesty and real sincerity.

    It is my opinion that the U.S. has missed an opportunity to engage with Duterte early in his presidency. As is the recurrent theme of U.S. foreign policy, failure on timely intelligence has the State Department with yet another dilemma.

  • Posted by Ahmad Meratzadeh

    He knows his country and his people and their problems. His people trust him. Maybe we shouldn’t arbitrate hasty.

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