Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has said he will visit Russia and China to “open alliances” with the two states.
Since his election, the Filipino leader has made invective-laden speeches against Western partners and their leaders, including US President Barack Obama, decrying them for interfering in Philippine domestic affairs.
At the heart of this emerging dispute is not some fundamental geopolitical clash, but the issue of human rights.
Duterte may be inflaming tensions, but on foreign policy he has the law on his side. The Philippines’ 1987 constitution enshrines the principle of independence. It says:
The [Philippine] State shall pursue an independent foreign policy. In its relations with other states, the paramount consideration shall be national sovereignty, territorial integrity, national interest and the right to self-determination.
This policy of independence mandates that the country should not align itself with either the West or the East, but instead pursue friendly relations with all relevant international actors depending on the national interest.
So on the surface, Duterte is simply fulfilling his constitutional duty as the new national commander-in-chief. But a closer look reveals that the Filipino president has something more specific in mind.
It’s the emphasis on non-dependence on America that is unique to Duterte’s foreign policy preference. For almost a century, the Philippines has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States, first as a colony and later as a staunch regional ally.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines and the broader Philippine security establishment have, over the decades, heavily depended on American financial assistance, logistical support, and intelligence cooperation. In many ways, Washington is indispensable to Philippine national security interests.
And, in light of rising tensions in the South China Sea – with Beijing expanding its military, para-military and construction footprint across Philippine-claimed waters – Manila has become ever more dependent on American military assistance.
For Duterte, however, his country has become too subservient, and too dependent on a foreign power that isn’t reliable enough. He has, on multiple occasions, openly questioned America’s commitment to the Philippines amid the maritime spats in the region.
Washington has never clarified whether the US-Philippine mutual defence treaty covers the specific areas of dispute in the South China Sea. And US military assistance to the Philippines pales in comparison to that enjoyed by European and Middle Eastern allies.
As a self-described socialist and long-term mayor of the frontier city of Davao in southern Philippines, Duterte also harbours some misgivings about America’s role in the conflict in the Mindanao region during his tenure.
Everybody needs good neighbours
Duterte has always emphasised the necessity of forging close and friendly ties with other Asian countries, particularly economic giants such as China and Japan, which are crucial to the Philippines’ economic development.
Despite the bitter disputes in the South China Sea, he has consistently called for dialogue and peaceful management of territorial spats, while welcoming large-scale Chinese infrastructure investments in the country.
In this sense, the foul-mouthed, tough-talking president of the Philippines is a pragmatist on foreign policy, especially when compared to his more urbane predecessor, Benigno Aquino, who went so far as likening China to Nazi Germany.
In itself, a policy geared towards less dependence on America and more engagement with China seems sensible for a country like the Philippines. And realistically, the Philippines isn’t forging military alliances with Moscow and Beijing anytime soon.
Some critics are likening Duterte to Hugo Chavez, the staunchly anti-American Venezuelan president who served from 2009 until his death in 2013, suggesting he will plunge an erstwhile American ally into the embrace of Eastern powers.
But given the depth of economic and strategic ties between Manila and the West, and the hard-to-resolve territorial tensions between Manila and Beijing, it is likely that the Philippines will, at most, move along the path of Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Erdoğan has had occasional diplomatic dust-ups over democracy and human rights issues with the West, but the fundamentals of military-to-military and investment relations remained intact.
Just as Erdogan’s Turkey, Duterte’s Philippines is unlikely to decouple from the West, though bilateral relations are no longer sacrosanct.