President Duterte's Foreign Policy Challenges

By Baviera, Aileen | Contemporary Southeast Asia, August 2016 | Go to article overview

President Duterte's Foreign Policy Challenges


Baviera, Aileen, Contemporary Southeast Asia


On 30 June 2016, Rodrigo Duterte took office as the 16th president of Asia's oldest republic. Duterte's political experience covers over two decades as mayor of Davao City--the third most populous city in the Philippines--several years as assistant city prosecutor and three years as a congressman. However, none of these positions can be considered adequate preparation to deal with the challenges the country now faces in its foreign relations.

His predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, pursued a proactive foreign policy, the centrepiece of which was the promotion of the Philippines' maritime interests and sovereign rights in the South China Sea. Aquino was responding to China's growing assertiveness in the disputed waters, particularly the stationing of coast guard vessels at Scarborough Shoal, a rocky outcrop over which there was a tense standoff between the two countries in 2012 which resulted in China's seizure of the shoal. Filipino fishermen were subsequently denied access to the valuable fishing grounds around Scarborough Shoal.

Aquino, and his Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario, mounted a major challenge to China by filing a case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague. The legal submission sought affirmation of Manila's rights in its claimed exclusive economic zone (EEZ), thereby invalidating China's expansive but unclarified claims indicated by the so-called nine-dash line which appears on official Chinese maps. The arbitration panel established by the PCA delivered its ruling on July 12, barely two weeks into the Duterte administration, and it was largely in Manila's favour, to China's great consternation. What Aquino had started was now left for Duterte to pursue. In addition to this legal manoeuvre, and a major campaign to draw international support for it, Aquino sought greater involvement by the United States through an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that allows for the rotational presence of US troops and the construction of support facilities in selected Philippine defence facilities. Not surprisingly, China has said that it will reject any ruling from the arbitration panel--whose jurisdiction it refuses to accept--and has accused the United States (and other countries such as Japan) of "meddling" in the dispute.

This leaves President Duterte with two major foreign policy challenges: how to manage relations with China, now that the arbitration ruling has been announced; and defining what role the Philippines' security alliance with the United States should play as the next chapter unfolds in the South China Sea dispute.

As a candidate on the campaign trail, Duterte's initial statements on these issues were peppered with hyperbole, but provided early indications of his preference for a more open and pragmatic approach towards China. "I can talk more candidly with the Chinese than with Americans", he said. (1) Duterte remarked that he was open to engaging China in bilateral negotiations, pursuing joint development of resources, and that he would downplay the sovereignty question if China also stopped insisting on sovereignty. (2) It appeared that Duterte was considering a more practical approach, one that would allow China to play a role in developing the Philippine economy.

On the other hand, his mistrust of the United States is said to have arisen from a 2002 incident in Davao when as mayor, the US authorities spirited away an American undercover agent when local police tried to investigate a suspicious explosion at the man's hotel room. His wariness about the US may also partly relate to why he has leftists and former communists among his close associates, although they are but part of the wide political spectrum of his supporters. However, his resistance to intervention may be due to his own instinctively independent leadership style, as he has recently criticized not only the United States but also Australia and the UN when officials issued unfavourable responses to some of his off-colour utterances. …

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