Between Tragedy and Strategy in the Philippines

Philippine President Rodrigo R. Duterte in Malacañan Palace in Manila. Courtesy of the public domain.

The Philippines’ policy of avoiding any confrontation with China is not working. It is time for a rethink of the country’s posture and alliance with the US.

In his fifth State of the Nation address on 27 July 2020, President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte shared his thoughts on the South China Sea dispute. As expected, Duterte repeatedly stated his position that the return of US bases would invite war. However, he also remarked that sending the Philippine Marine Corps from the Palawan coast to the disputed Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal would be useless against China’s military might.

Duterte has admitted he is unable to advance and protect the strategic interests of his country in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), the maritime areas on the western part of the Philippine archipelago from the Luzon Sea and the waters around, within, and adjacent to the Kalayaan Island group in the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal. However, he admitted that other presidents would have done it, but that is not, apparently, a task for him.

Yet, his cabinet differs in opinion from him. Philippine Foreign Affairs secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr recently said in an interview, that it will invoke the US–Philippines 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty if China attacks the Philippine navy in the WPS. Locsin affirmed the statement given by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last year – that Washington will assist Manila if Beijing attacks. Moreover, Manila’s Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana stated his approval of US support for a rules-based order in the region.

The 2017–22 National Security Policy (NSP) of the Philippines regards the WPS as the country’s foremost security issue. Furthermore, it claims that Chinese aggression in that region is driven by ‘food and energy source demands and renewed stirrings of nationalism’. To address this, the NSP argued that Manila needs a strong and credible force and a network of allies and like-minded partners.

Duterte defends himself against his critics by claiming that unless they are ready for war, the diplomatic option is still a good option. But from a strategic point of view, his supposed ‘good option’ is increasingly being seen as a bad one. For Duterte's appeasement to China has lost its shine. Chinese investments – the supposed reward for his moderation – have failed to alleviate Manila's developmental problems. At the same time, many Filipinos complain about the competition for local jobs, in the face of an influx of Chinese labourers, many involved in offshore gaming operations.

The Philippines is yet to fully leverage its legal victory in the July 2016 Arbitral Ruling against China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. Instead of capitalising on what was a historic ruling – on which even US diplomats now rely in making their case against China – Duterte has set aside the ruling and claimed that enforcing it would trigger a war with China that the Philippines cannot win.

In this context, Duterte has pretended that the US–Philippines alliance is not a factor for his country’s defence concept and should be replaced instead with his ambiguous 'independent foreign policy’.

But this view, which draws upon traditional Philippine distrust of the US – exemplified by the Senate of the Philippines rejecting the extension of the 1947 Military Bases Agreement in 1991 – is increasingly being questioned. For, as Mico Galang, a Filipino defense analyst, notes, while the alliance with the US is clearly burdened by history, and is unfavourable and imperfect, the Philippines does not have much choice as a small power.

Renato De Castro has observed that the tendency to move away from the US protective umbrella has not been followed or matched by efforts to beef up national defence capabilities. Congress has consistently failed to allocate the 5% of the annual state budget to defence, as it was expected to do.

To save face, Congress soon invited the Americans back through the 1997 Visiting Forces Agreement. But the defence gap is there, and it is being filled by China.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) under Duterte have enjoyed continued modernisation. However, their political direction remains anomalous, given the president’s contempt for the US alliance and his lack of enduring commitment to defence. Several modernisation projects were recently halted to realign state resources against coronavirus.

Polls show Filipinos are more likely to trust the US than China. A sound strategy is needed to meet this electoral preference. But the National Security Policy is continually neglected, and the problem of China is ignored.

But a consensus is growing in Manila that China will not be appeased by diplomacy. Nor are US freedom of navigation operations alone able to deter China or act as a substitute for the AFP. A serious contribution from the Philippines is therefore required to accompany the US and share the burden.

A sound strategic posture would be to integrate the AFP’s newest assets with greater geopolitical thought. Investments in coastal missile defence and additional offshore patrol boats and the reassertion of an air defence identification zone which denies Chinese territorial claims in the region can have no meaning unless these are integrated with a broader strategic objective – to uphold a rules-based order where the sovereignty of the Philippines is protected. In that regard, nurturing the alliance with the US is not a sign of dependence but a show of resolve to work with others for a shared vision.

Winston Churchill famously said, ‘Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts’. Courage in this context requires strategic thought. And ineffectual leaders will not succeed in appeasing adversaries.

Joshua Bernard B Espeña is a defence analyst in the Office for Strategic Studies and Strategy Management of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). All views are entirely his own and do not reflect the official position of his office and the AFP.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


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