Philippines' China-US Rebalancing in the Spotlight with Duterte Meeting
Engagement exposes the complexities of Manila's ongoing engagement of Beijing and Washington within its evolving foreign and security policy.
Welcome to this week’s edition of the ASEAN Wonk BulletBrief! For this iteration, we are looking at:
Assessing the significance of former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s meeting in China for Manila’s evolving foreign and security policy;
Mapping of regional developments including Singapore’s latest submarine delivery; Cambodia-Thailand electoral dynamics and more;
Charting evolving trends including civil-military dynamics in Indonesia and confidence and security building measures in the maritime domain;
Tracking and analysis of industry developments related to China’s presence in Myanmar, Vietnam’s international electric vehicle ambitions and more;
And much more! ICMYI, check out our take on the global significance and evolution of Vietnam’s big international JETP partnership, one of two in Southeast Asia (the other being in Indonesia).
To receive full ASEAN Wonk posts and support our work, consider becoming a paid subscriber.
WonkCount: 1,655 words (~ 8 minutes reading time).
Russia-Thailand Talks; New Philippine Military Chief; Singapore’s Submarine Fleet in the Spotlight & More
Philippines’ China-US Rebalancing in the Spotlight with Duterte Meeting
A meeting between former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing has spotlighted Manila’s evolving calibration of its ties between China and the United States as part of its wider foreign policy being shaped under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
What’s Behind It
The Duterte-Xi meeting took place in Beijing on July 17. Per the official readout by China’s foreign ministry, Chinese senior diplomat Wang Yi also attended the meeting, after having just just represented China at the latest round of ASEAN meetings with its Foreign Minister Qin Gang having disappeared from public viewing over the past few weeks1.
The meeting came amid the evolving rebalancing of Philippine foreign and security policy of Marcos Jr’s administration after Duterte. Though Marcos Jr is still in the first year of his single six-year term, the administration has been trying to rebalance the Philippines’ ties with the United States and China after the skewed approach of Duterte, who had distanced Manila from its treaty ally in Washington while embracing Beijing. Thus far, this has given rise to inroads in the U.S.-Philippine alliance, capped by Marcos Jr’s visit to Washington in May, as well as greater scrutiny in terms of Manila’s approach to Indo-Pacific security networking, Taiwan policy and the South China Sea.
Why it Matters
Duterte’s visit highlights the complexities in the Philippines’ China policy, which can play out in ties with Beijing. China is no stranger to cultivating ties with individuals and entities it designates as being friendly to Beijing in key countries of interest — be it businesses, research institutes or current and future politicians — and the Philippines is no exception especially given its traditional strategic significance as a U.S. ally. There is also a spectrum of views within the Philippines which can come to the spotlight in key engagements: a case in point is the visit of China-friendly former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (popularly known as GMA) to China back in April, who has since been demoted from her position as House senior deputy speaker2. Despite these realities, Marcos Jr publicly downplayed the notion of Duterte’s China meeting reflecting Beijing’s undermining of his administration’s approach by cultivating a separate diplomatic track, noting that he hoped that issues like the South China Sea were addressed and that he welcomed “any new lines of communication.”3
While Duterte’s visit is not without significance, its importance should also be kept in perspective. Duterte retained significant popularity during his time in office despite his unsuccessful China gambit, and though his term has ended, the Duterte dynasty’s influence in Philippine politics is still felt, principally in the form of his daughter Sara Duterte who is Marcos Jr’s vice president and could herself be a future presidential contender. Yet the views of the father and daughter are far from fully aligned. More generally, Duterte’s approach of embracing Beijing and separating from the United States is far from the popular view in the Philippines given the pro-U.S. orientation of its military and high favorability ratings among the population for Washington relative to Beijing (see, for instance, majority support for the pursuit of foreign alignments on the South China Sea from Pulse Asia shown in the image below). While Duterte could cut against that consensus while leading the country, it is much harder to do so while out of office.
Support For Alliances in Response to Philippines’ South China Sea Position
Where it’s Headed
Such engagements will be important to watch within the context of the Marcos Jr administration’s evolving China policy. More cautious Philippine officials have pointed out the reality that despite the security inroads within the U.S.-Philippine alliance during the administration’s first year in office, the shift back towards Washington will be evaluated in accordance with the comprehensive benefits the Philippines receives — principally in the economic domain — albeit with relatively less scrutiny relative to Duterte’s China embrace which deviated from the norm in Philippine foreign policy. China will no doubt seek to continue to influence that process for its own interests through a mix of collaborative and coercive moves that extend down to individual deals and personalities.
The role of other partners in this U.S.-China rebalancing along with evolving domestic priorities will also be important to monitor as the administration’s wider foreign and security approach takes shape. Marcos Jr’s foreign policy approach will likely become clearer as ties build out with other key Indo-Pacific countries, with a number of expected high-level visits including from Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol. New appointments will also be taking shape, with the latest being the military chief Romeo Brawner who assumed office July 21, with his predecessor Andres Centino now set to be a presidential adviser on the South China Sea. Marcos Jr’s upcoming State of the Nation Address (SONA) will also be closely watched to discern any implications for foreign policy, even though his first SONA last year had few specifics beyond general tendencies such as not abandoning “even one square inch of territory” to any foreign power4.
Philippine Perceptions on Taiwan; Rising Civil-Military Anxieties in Indonesia; Assessing Maritime CSBMs
“While Manila strongly supported the status quo, respondents viewed greater economic and intelligence engagement between the U.S. and Taiwan as completely uncontroversial,” notes a report on U.S. alliance perceptions on increasing and decreasing support for Taiwan by the RAND Corporation focused on the cases of the Philippines, Japan and Korea (see image below for more detail on Philippine perceptions on specific policy options from the report). In the case of the Philippines, the report cautions that given the high variability in approaches to China under past Philippine presidents, Manila’s views would be highly conditional on who would be leading the country at any point in time (link).
Philippine Perspective on U.S. Options for Increased Support to Taiwan
“[C]ivil-military relations have steadily weakened under Jokowi, laying the groundwork for a less accountable military and MOD in the post-Jokowi era,” warns new report by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC). The report argues that a confluence of interests between the military and Jokowi has led to backsliding on civilian control which has in turn opened the door to greater apportionment of civilian positions to active-duty officers; expansion of the TNI’s non-military roles and territorial command structure; and the lack of transparency on military budgets and procurement procedures. (link).
“The foreseeable reality is to make do with this hodgepodge of confidence and security building measures (CSBMs), each with its own designed purpose and set of participants, that could hopefully be effective as a collective sum,” notes a paper published by VERTIC and the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network (see a typology of these CSBMs below from the paper). The paper examines three multilateral CSBMs in the Southeast Asian maritime domain — Guidelines for Air Military Encounters (GAME), the proposed Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (CoC) and the Code on Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) — and argues that despite their limitations, there are opportunities to build off of them by measures such as expanding CUES to include coast guards and irregular forces (link).