August 3, 2021


PHILIPPINES: The symbolic marker to the end of Duterte’s China pivot

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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( 3 mins)

The Philippine government announced during the visit of US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on 30 July that Manila was retracting its February 2020 termination of the 1999 Philippines-USA visiting forces agreement (VFA). During a press conference yesterday, 2 August, Duterte explained that he had decided to continue the VFA to obtain access to US vaccines and thanked US President Joe Biden “for not forgetting us.” This followed several months of consistently more assertive statements from senior defense and foreign policy officials against Chinese ships in disputed maritime waters.

At a personal level, Duterte’s foreign policy biases are unlikely to have changed much. Given the opportunity, he would probably prefer both personally and politically to continue with messaging a pro-China pivot. He remains uncomfortable with many of the rules-based institutions associated with the liberal international order. And should the situation present itself, he will continue with his diatribes against the US and EU, as he did yesterday during the same press conference, when he warned the US State Department against criticizing his government’s human rights record. He believes the western media to be part of the efforts to discredit him.

But some pragmatism may have leaked into top-level policymaking as well as Duterte’s short-term decision-making. As we had discussed in an earlier note, simmering discomfort within the military over Duterte’s accommodative policies towards Beijing may have gradually filtered through to the defense leadership over time, which eventually led to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s more assertive stance starting in March. And increased skepticism over the effectiveness of Sinovac’s vaccine, which is also palpable in many countries in Southeast Asia, may have added to the internal pressure to find more vaccine supplies, especially with potential delays in Thai-manufactured AstraZeneca and Novavax.

In connection with this, the US’ seemingly earlier exit from the pandemic compared to China may have weakened Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy. Together, these may have built up enough pressure within the administration, especially from defense, foreign affairs and health officials, for Duterte to shift his position and, more concretely, to withdraw the termination of the VFA. There is also a growing sense domestically that US foreign policy towards Asia is becoming more coherent under the Biden administration, which increases the prospective foreign policy gains for Manila in improving its relationship with Washington.

With election season set to open in October with the filing of candidacies (even though the formal campaign period will begin only next year), Duterte is unlikely to be able to manage another policy shift of any magnitude towards China as he did in 2016. He will continue to play to his base by advocating for Beijing and criticizing the US, but this will be mainly rhetoric meant to keep their faith. Even then, recognizing how it could alienate Filipinos uncomfortable with China’s regional ambitions, Duterte will still temper this message. Should his daughter, Sara become president, she will likely adopt a more measured tone closer to the balancing act of other Southeast Asian leaders.

At the end of the day, it is highly unlikely that when Duterte framed his pivot to China in 2016 that there was any grand strategy behind it; rather it reflected his biases and personal perceptions. And while he never paid any political price for it, neither did it deliver anything close to the economic or geopolitical gains he promised. Today, it mostly exists as foreign policy theater for domestic consumption, but now matched against the reality of the Philippine military’s long relationship with the US, the need for Covid-19 vaccines and an election ahead.

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