Commitments, conflicts, costs: PH foreign policy shift under Duterte

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 28) — A “friend to all, enemy to none” was how President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration defined the independent foreign policy it vowed to pursue.

Yet months into assuming the presidency, Duterte made global headlines for lashing out and threatening to sever ties with the country’s long-standing ally, the United States, which criticized his deadly drug war.

As he publicly moved away from the US, he cultivated stronger relations with rather unconventional partners, China and Russia.

His pivot towards China, in particular, has earned him backlash, with some saying the tough-talking Duterte failed to take a tougher line with the Asian giant amid its growing aggressions in the West Philippine Sea.

Six years ago, the president vowed his foreign policy would hinge on the commitment to “best serve our people and protect the interest of the country.” As his term comes to a close, how have his shifts and pronouncements on foreign affairs impacted the Philippines?

Gains, costs?

The Duterte administration adopted an appeasement policy on China, analysts had said, to boost economic deals, such as investments and loans.

In 2018, Duterte said he needs Beijing “more than anybody else at this time,” as its financial backing is a crucial ingredient in his local infrastructure “Build, Build, Build” program.

At the same time, however, Philippine-China relations have remained fraught with tension over the West Philippine Sea.

Despite the Hague ruling in 2016 largely favoring the Philippines, Beijing insists on its claims over the resource-rich area, as it built artificial islands, blocked Filipinos from fishing, interfered in oil exploration activities, and refused to withdraw hundreds of its ships in the past several years.

In 2019, Duterte himself agreed to set aside the landmark arbitral victory to make way for a planned joint oil and gas exploration with the Asian power in the contested waterway.

READ: Remembering the 2016 Hague ruling: What has happened since then?

But Duterte’s strategic flirtation with China – as political analyst Richard Heydarian put it – ultimately “has not produced much concrete outcomes.”

“China didn't really have much investments in the Philippines in terms of big-ticket infrastructure,” Heydarian told CNN Philippines.

According to policy think-tank Infrawatch PH Convenor, out of 119 listed projects under the Build, Build, Build program, only 18 have been delivered by the government. 

“There was also no improvement in terms of conditions on the ground in the South China Sea,” Heydarian continued. “No fisheries agreement with China, no ecological agreement or maritime protection zones, or you know, there was no significant reduction in China's deployment. If anything, China’s militia, maritime militia presence, expanded in the area.”

Last week, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. bared that the joint exploration talks with China have been terminated completely.

And while Duterte previously promised to stop China from fishing in the country’s exclusive economic zone within his term, and Malacañang maintained it has done “all that [it] could” to assert the Hague ruling, some local fishermen say their livelihood continues to suffer from the sea dispute.

To date, many are still unable to fish freely due to the presence of the Chinese Coast Guard in Philippine waters, according to the fishers' group Pamalakaya.

“Seventy percent nung kita nila ‘yung nawala dahil diyan sa patuloy na pagtataboy ng China. Hindi sila malaya na nakakapangisda,” Pamalakaya national chairperson Fernando Hicap said in a phone interview, citing as examples the areas of Zambales and Palawan.

[Translation: They lose 70% of their income because China drives them away. They cannot fish freely in the West Philippine Sea.]

For Hicap, the president himself helped weaken the country’s resistance to China’s aggressive behavior.

“‘Yun ang legacy ni Pangulong Duterte. Kaya nananatili at matigas ang China na umalis diyan dahil nga sa ganun, si Pangulong Duterte ay tumatayong tagapagtanggol ng China,” he said.

[Translation: That’s the legacy of President Duterte. China refuses to leave our waters because President Duterte acts in their defense.]


It is well-known that Duterte’s pronouncements concerning foreign affairs have occasionally been defined by inconsistencies.

A controversial example was when he called the country's arbitral win against China a “mere scrap of paper” in May 2021. However, in a speech at the United Nations General Assembly four months later, he said Beijing’s noncompliance with the Hague ruling cannot diminish the award’s worth.

But besides the president, it is important to also note how the Defense and Foreign Affairs departments acted.

According to Heydarian, Foreign Affairs chief Locsin and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana have both been “largely traditional” in their approach to alliances. On multiple occasions, the two appeared to have shown more force in upholding the country's territorial claims with strongly worded statements against China.

From 2016 to 2021, the Department of Foreign Affairs also filed over 200 diplomatic protests against Beijing.

“Both have been openly skeptical towards China,” Heydarian said. “Not to mention, both Lorenzana and Locsin have openly backed maintenance and even upgrading of alliance with the United States.”

With heightened tensions over clashing claims and underwhelming economic gains to show from cozying up to China, the analyst noted there were also indications that Manila has again been strengthening relations with the US in the latter part of Duterte's term.

The president previously threatened to abrogate the decades-long Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US on more than one occasion, including in early 2020 after Washington cancelled the visa of his former police chief who led the drug war.

But in July 2021, Duterte decided to keep the military deal, which makes it easier for US troops to move in and out of the Philippines.

“In the final months of President Duterte’s term, not only the VFA was restored, but we had the largest ever Balikatan exercises in recent memory, and by and large, if you look at it, the alliance with the United States has remained intact,” Heydarian said.

Moving forward

At noon of June 30, Duterte is set to be succeeded by incoming President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos, Jr. who likewise committed to pursue an independent foreign policy.

Like Duterte, Marcos called China a “good friend” and the “strongest partner” of the country. Chinese President Xi Jinping, for his part, referred to Marcos as a "builder, supporter and promoter" of the friendship between both nations in his congratulatory message.

Marcos said strengthening ties with the Asian power would help the Philippines in its economic recovery, and bared plans to continue pursuing bilateral talks on the West Philippine Sea issue. He also, however, earlier vowed to leverage the Hague ruling to ensure Philippine sovereignty is not compromised in any way.

Now, it remains to be seen where his similarities with Duterte end, and whether or not the next president will be more forceful in asserting the country’s rights.