Duterte’s Balancing Act of Two Superpowers: US and China

Duterte's Balancing Act of Two Superpowers: USA and China. Written by Hon Sophia Balod for SubSelfie.com.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is treading a dangerous path trying to balance two superpowers in his hands: China and the United States.

In a recent turn of events, Duterte has decided to retain the military alliance between the US and the Philippines after rashly announcing a separation from the US on independent foreign policy during a state visit in China. After repeatedly saying he would no longer allow joint military exercises with the US, the Defense Secretary of the Philippines clarified that the security alliance will not be terminated. The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed in 2014 which prolongs the deployment of US troops in the Philippines will continue to be honored. However, military exercises will be reduced and will not focus on combat-based activities.

But even as Duterte seeks an independent foreign policy from the US, the reality remains that the Philippines is still heavily bound by military aid and support from the US. At least 600 American troops are currently stationed in the Philippines and have access to the country’s military bases. Based on studies conducted by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 75% of the military arms of the Philippines are imported from the US since 1950. According to a US think tank, the US also has provided $441 million in security funding to the Philippines from 2002 to 2013.

But the tides have turned and the administration is currently negotiating a 25-year military agreement with Beijing which includes purchase of Chinese weaponry.

So why is Duterte seeking an alliance with China? It might be a more strategic alliance in the long run.

China: One Belt, One Road

China is a rising superpower, and one of the threats to the hegemonic rule of the US all over the world. The emerging rise of Asian countries, particularly China’s growth, signals the shift in global economics and politics from Western Europe and North America to the East according to scholar and analyst Steve Chan.

It is anticipated that by the year 2025, seven of the world’s ten largest economies will be located in Asia. China’s economy might also triple in the next fifteen years surpassing the annual growth rate of 9 percent. No other country has ever been able to achieve and sustain this rate of growth over a comparable period of time, Chan says.

Economically, China is the second largest trading partner of the Philippines, with total trade worth of $17.646 billion or 13.6 percent of the total trade, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority. The US places only third at 12.7% or $16.491 billion total trade in 2015.

Keeping a friendly alliance with China is a major economic strategy, and Duterte’s efforts seemingly did not go to waste. In October, the Chinese government has lifted the ban on banana import coming from the Philippines. Through this ban, China has succeeded in displaying its soft power using economic restraints which hurt thousands of Filipino farmers. Last March, China destroyed 35 tons of bananas from the Philippines valued at $33,000 and suspended 27 exporters.

The Philippines is the second largest producer of bananas worldwide and supplies 95 percent of the total demand in Asia.

The realignment of the Philippines could also be partly interpreted into the context of China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) that helps China’s ambitious geo-economic strategy, according to Prof. Mette Skak of Aarhus University’s Political Science Department. Since the OBOR has begun in 2014 with $40 billion, the economic development project has attracted foreign investors especially in the Asian wing.

“China is pursuing a very ambitious concept of OBOR, a new silk road where China sponsors the system of infrastructure to have vast, improved access to the world market. This is rather an offensive, but for the time being, a non-military strategy,” Skak said.

A Game of Strategies

China’s transformation into a major economic bloc also means that it has the capacity to build up and strengthen its military and naval forces. In a strategy policy paper published by Chinese militia, experts see the naval and air force power projection of China as a move to counter what it sees as American efforts to contain its rise. China has also expressed the intention of fighting back through its active build up of military capability in case the US pushes it to the corner.

“China will actively build up its military capability and deterrence, just to make sure no one dares fight with us,” said General Xu, whose institute advises the Chinese Foreign Ministry. “The United States cannot expect China to back off under pressure. It needs to know that the consequences would be unthinkable if it pushes China into a corner.”

There is a tension brewing between the US and China — and Philippines plays an important role. Military bases in the Philippines are a proof of America’s presence and lingering control in the East. By questioning the alliance of the Philippines with the US, and openly claiming separation from the US, Duterte has won over China’s support. For how long will these alliances last, that remains a question. For now, China sees the allure of the Philippines as a US ally.

“The Philippines is like a jewel in the crown to some extent because this is a turning point, a dramatic orientation, in case it is a lasting reorientation and not just a classic tactical game,” Skak explained.

The military realignment of the Philippines is definitely a concern for the US which aims to expand navigation exercises in the South China Sea where $5 trillion worth of cargo trade passes annually.

The reshuffling of strategic partnerships towards Asia has again proven to be “fruitful” for the Philippines after China has finally given access to Filipino fishermen in the contested Scarborough Shoal after a four-year blockade. Bilateral talks between China and the Philippines about the disputed waters of South China Sea are also set to resume.

Dealing with Two Superpowers

However, winning the favor of a superpower at the expense of another superpower may prove to be harmful for the Philippines in the long run. If Duterte continues his streak of trashing the US, spewing curses at international institutions such as the United Nations or the European Union every now and then, and blatantly disregarding human rights, the country’s diplomatic and economic ties may be at risk.

The anticipated alliances with China or the looming separation from the US are pronouncements that are not carved in stone. It is too early to tell if the US will soon be an eternal foe or if China will be a dependable ally.

“It is a much more fluid situation. This could also be read as a game of bluff. What he really wants is to gain possible concessions both from China and US. I would interpret his steps as a game of seeking concessions,” Skak said.

While this tactic may only be a short-term strategy to gain concessions from China, Duterte must be careful not to overplay his hand.

“If foreign investors perceive Duterte as a person who is very whimsical and aggressive especially in terms of the war on drugs which is perceived as extreme and problematic from the human rights perspective, it may backfire. If the rest of the world perceives this as something temporary and can be soon ironed it, then it may not have dramatic consequences,” Skak said.

Whether Duterte sees this alliance and separation among superpowers as a short-term or long-term strategy, the fact remains that he is creating a new trend in world politics. His friendly attitude towards China may gain us a few temporary gains but ultimately, China is acting on its own interests. Trust the US to also pursue its own interests, and with the new presidency under Donald Trump, everything is much more uncertain.

Nothing is set in the game of politics, and while the leaders of nations decide which states are friends or foes, the lives of the ordinary citizens are left hanging on the thread. Ultimately in the end, the public will be affected the most with upcoming political and economic changes.

Outgoing US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jingping. Photo by the LA Times.
Outgoing US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jingping. Photo by the LA Times.

[Entry 185, The SubSelfie Blog]

About the Author:

Walking tour in Copenhagen

Hon Sophia Balod is a storyteller. She was previously a News Producer of special reports and features for GMA Network and Reuters. She is a media fellow of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and recipient of 2016 Gawad Agong and Sarihay Media Awards for Excellence in News Reporting  on  the plight of indigenous people and environmental issues. She is now studying Media and Politics in Aarhus University, Denmark under the Erasmus Mundus Scholarship Program. Journalism 2010, UP Diliman. Read more of her articles here.

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