Duterte’s Foreign Policy Choices - Blueboard by Alma Maria O. Salvador
In this post arbitration ruling context, Duterte was circumspect in his decision to de-securitize China’s threat to the West Philippine Sea and apply a “soft landing” approach. To securitize is to achieve the opposite effect and to elevate the threat of Chinese incursion in the Philippine EEZ as a threat to Philippine sovereignty.
In choosing to designate China’s threat as an “existential threat”, Benigno Aquino III advanced military modernization, strengthened US-Philippine security relations through the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement and launched a major international arbitration case against China. These “extraordinary measures” internationalized the bilateral dispute while heightening political risks in the West Philippine Sea border and enmeshing the US in a territorial question.
The decision to securitize has brought Philippine-China relations to an all time low, with the standoff between theChinese and Philippine militaries in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal in 2012 emerging as yet its most dangerous outcome.
As an impact-mitigating strategy required of strategically managing China, an un-benign hegemonic power and its response to its defeat in international law, Duterte and his Foreign Secretary, chose not to “flaunt” Philippines’ victorious arbitration outcome and enjoined parties to “exercise restraint and sobriety”.
His decision to reframe the extremely sensitive and controversial sovereignty issue to a low security concern of fishery rights access for Filipino fishers in the Panatag Shoal was appropriate in the light of the drivers that defined the post ruling context: China’s vehement declaration of the ruling as null and void, its display of military might on the islands of Spratlys, Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Panatag Shoal and lack of ASEAN consensusduring the last 49th Foreign Ministerial Meeting in Vientiane in which not a single ASEAN member had issued a statement that hinted on China’s compliance to international law.
To “flaunt” the sovereignty card is to re-assert Philippines’ territorial claims and against this present context, the option would require the Duterte government to speed up military modernization, enforce riskier patrols in the West Philippine Sea, extend the Zambales municipal fishery ban and alert the military in case of a confrontation short of war. It would find itself actively dependent on the Philippine-US “ironclad” military alliance.
A future challenge is for Duterte to up the ante beyond fishery rights —towards law enforcement, an option close to Indonesia’s approach vis-a-vis China.
Philippines’ situation is far from the same as Indonesia’s. Albeit Indonesia is a non-South China Sea claimant, it remains concerned and has protested China’s overlapping 9-dash line and its encroachment in Indonesian EEZ in which its claimed- Natuna islands are located. Until the presidency of Jokowi Widodo, Indonesia has remained careful to securitize Chinese illegal fishing and incursions in its EEZ as a “territorial dispute ”. Under Widodo it applies “flexible hedging” with the US, as it cultivates economic relations with China while vigorously upholding fishery laws in the Indonesian EEZ.
Unlike Indonesia, the Philippines has the leverage of the international arbitration’s ruling in its favor. It is its main leverage—its “hard” balancer against China. How the Duterte government realizes the potential value of the victorious ruling will depend on astute diplomacy to bring back Philippine-China relations to “normalcy” and its ability to spread its options through a calibrated approach to US military relations.
Calibration with the US makes for rational foreign choice in the emerging post cold war-regional bipolar competition between US and China. The zero sum game approach reserved of the sphere of influence model of alliance building of the cold war period will limit the Philippines from maneuvering in the face of the rise of a revisionist state in its vicinity. Exclusive alliance strategies such as that which tied the Philippines to US military, political and economic interests have limited value in the today’s complex world.
The Philippines cannot go back to that moment. As Former Akbayan Rep Walden Bello has argued: it is “the fear of military encirclement by Washington that is driving China’s behavior.”
However it is foolish to severe our relations from the US and cast the entire lot of Philippine foreign policy on China. If the Duterte government were to materially benefit from this emergent regional or future global power distribution, it should be wary to choose one superpower over the other.
Foreign policy, as the continuation of domestic policy requires that the Duterte government to seriously address its failed communications strategy at home and the diplomatic fronts. As chief diplomat and chief executive he is called upon to meaningfully translate domestic preferences in consultation and deliberation with relevant sectors including his cabinet and his constituencies.
Alma Maria O Salvador, PhD is assistant professor of political science at Ateneo de Manila University.