ALONGSIDE President Rodrigo Duterte’s promise of change came a change in the country’s relations with some other countries as well—particularly the United States, China and Russia.
Several weeks after his inauguration, the President declared he wanted to pursue an independent foreign policy, independent from the long-held tradition of gravitating to the United States, the country’s one-time colonial master.
He said he wanted to veer the Philippines away from the United States and pivot instead to China and Russia, both demonized by the U.S. media at the height of the communist scare in the 1960s. He was cheered and jeered for the statement, depending on who’s talking.
Duterte, amply articulated by his alter egos, would however later admit that he only felt insulted after the U.S. President Barack Obama publicly called his attention on the killings of hundreds of suspected drug users and pushers last year.
And he would hurl insults at Obama even long after America’s first black President left the White House.
On one occasion, Duterte brought up the Bud Dajo massacre, an episode in Philippine history well remembered for the slaughter of Moros by American soldiers in Mindanao in the 1900s, to demonstrate the U.S.’s own human rights record.
He later showed a picture of dead Moros to illustrate how atrocious the Americans carried out what it called “pacification” campaigns in the country.
Pivot to China
He also said he wanted American troops out of Mindanao, signaling an end to the joint PH-U.S. military exercises in Mindanao.
All this time, the President tried to revitalize the country’s relations with China, which turned sour during the Aquino administration, and Russia, the U.S.’s long-time Cold War nemesis.
Breaking tradition that began during the Commonwealth period of a newly–elected Philippine president to visit the U.S. first, Duterte flew to China.
The China visit, according to Palace publicists, yielded US$24 billion in deals and projects that could generate at least two million jobs in the next five years, although some of the deals came under fire owing to the controversies surrounding some of the partner Chinese firms.
China also lifted its travel advisory against the Philippines and restrictions on Philippine fruit exports. Reports of Filipino fishermen getting harassed by China at Scarborough Shoal subsided.
The price to pay
But all these seemed to have come at a price.
At Manila’s hosting of the ASEAN summit in May, the Chairman’s Statement failed to cite any reference at all to the Philippine victory in the arbitral court that junked China’s sweeping claim over the South China Sea.
It also dropped any mention of China’s land reclamation or respect for international law.
And that was bothersome, if not outright dangerous, according to lawyer Jay Batongbacal, a maritime law expert, and China-Southeast Asia relations expert Aileen Baviera of the UP Asian Center.
When ties hurt
Because the Philippines didn’t want to antagonize China, Batongbacal said, it couldn’t complain about it.
“Hindi tayo masyadong umiimik, nagawa nila ang gusto nilang gawin… Kaya doon kumbaga talo tayo. Kung panalo man tayo sa independent foreign policy, talo tayo pagdating sa pagdepensa sa ating mga karapatan sa West Philippine Sea,” he said.
Not raising the Philippines’ maritime issues against China has affected the country’s credibility, said Baviera.
“Dahil doon sa posisyon ng president, ayaw niyang itulak yang arbitration sa ngayon, nagtataka tuloy ang ibang mga partners na dati namang sumusuporta, para sa kanila binigay mo na nga sa Pilipinas yung arbitration award, panalo na nga diyan, kung hindi sila magtutulak niyan, sino? Sino tayo para magpakita ng suporta sa Pilipinas kung sila mismo hindi nila tinitignan na urgent yung pag-handle ng issue na yan,” she said.
“Although ang sinasabi naman ng Presidente, hindi naman niya binibitiwan yan, naghahanap lang siya ng siguro tamang pagkakataon, timing, o yung conditions na magandang ilabas yan. So ‘yun yung kumbaga sa credibility ng Pilipinas, sa mata ng ibang mga suporters natin, sa China na rin.”
So when is the right time to raise the issue? Baviera asked. “Kung hindi natin to gagamitin ngayon, dadating ba ang tamang conditions, tamang oras na pag-usapan siya lalo na sa sitwasyon na lalong lumalakas ang China?”
Duterte tried raising the ruling in a conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping but China allegedly responded with a threat of war.
“Sinabi ko talaga harap-harapan, that is ours and we intend to drill oil there,” Duterte said in a speech in May. “My view is I can drill the oil. He told me, ‘We do not want to quarrel with you. We would want to maintain the present warm relationship. But if you force the issue, we will go to war.”
Baviera said the issue couldn’t be resolved easily and may take a while, pointing out unresolved matters over ownership.
For now, she urged the Philippines to boost its capability not to wage war but patrol its waters and develop a strategy in dealing with China.
“Pwede kang magkaroon ng mas mahabang panahon na palakasin pa ang capacity natin, hindi para makipag-giyera pero para halimbawa ipatrol ang mga waters natin, sa side siguro ng military,” she said.
“Sa diplomacy ganoon din, magkakaroon tayo ng mas mahabang panahon at mas positibong kondisyon din para ilatag kung ano ba yung gusto nating relasyon sa Tsina tungkol diyan sa mga issues nay an kasama na dyan yung meron na ba tayong diplomatic strategy?
Only recently, the Philippines and China created a bilateral consultation mechanism to discuss issues related to the South China Sea as both sides agreed to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities “that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.”
Batongbacal said Duterte’s stance to keep distance from the U.S. was enough to endanger the country’s rights over the West Philippine Sea as China has aggressively continued with reclamation and militarization of waters claimed both by Manila and Beijing.
“Yung paggalaw natin away from the US comes at a cost,” said Batongbacal, who serves as Director of the UP College of Law Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea (IMLOS).
“’Yung ating West Philippine Sea ngayon ay medyo nanganganib, ‘yung ating exclusive rights and jurisdiction over that area dahil sa nakaraang taon, nakita din natin na yung Chinese maritime forces, whether they are civilian or military, ang kanilang fishing activities, yung marine science activities nila pumasok na talaga sa loob ng West Philippine Sea.
Bad times, old friend
But call it like a roller-coaster ride, but as noted by Batongbacal, the Philippines failed to completely detach itself from its traditional ally.
PH-U.S. relations have not actually been severed, he said, pointing that the United States was even the first country to help in the Philippine government’s fight against terrorists in Marawi by providing intelligence and technical support at the behest of the the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
Which shows that all this time that the Duterte administration was gravitating towards China, it remains in the American orbit-—or vice versa.
But then again, things may not be as simple as that.