After the People’s Republic of China started to translate its economic and military rise in growing assertiveness in regard to the South China Sea dispute around 2009, the Philippines, since 2011, spearheaded the Southeast Asian claimant states’ efforts to balance Beijing’s maritime influence in the region.

Under the leadership of president Benigno S. Aquino III, Manila resorted to internal as well as external balancing. In terms of internal balancing, the Philippines strengthened their naval and aerial capabilities through the purchase of cutters and jet fighters from the United States of America (USA), Japan, and South Korea. In terms of external balancing, Manila secured diplomatic support and military assistance from Washington and Tokyo. In a crucial attempt to raise global awareness, Manila filed a complaint against Beijing at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague which ruled in favour of the Philippines in July 2016.

A SHIFT IN STRATEGY?

However, with the elction of Rodrigo Duterte as president of the Philippines in June 2016, Manila appears to shift its strategic position from balancing against into the direction of  bandwagoning with the PR China. Most importantly, president Duterte declared during a visit in Beijing in October 2016 that he sought a ‘separation’ from the USA, since 1951 its closest and most powerful ally, in order to form a triple alliance with the PR China and the Russian Federation to ‘face the world’. He added that Manila will halt military exercises with the USA because they angered Beijing. After president Duterte’s Beijing visit, Yan Xuetong, China’s leading international relations scholar declared that ‘the problem in the South China Sea is over’.

But president Duterte’s remarks can be also seen as cheap talk. Until the end of 2016, he has not taken any concrete measures to halt the access of US-troops to five Philippine military bases under the Philippine-U.S. Enhanced Defence Co-operation Agreement. He also backpedalled from earlier remarks by claiming that the ‘separation’ from the USA only referred to possible different foreign policy opinions but not to the severance of the entire relationship. Adding more confusion to the strategic re-orientation of Manila, president Duterte vowed during his late October 2016 trip to Tokyo that ‘the Philippines will continue to work closely with Japan on issues of common concern in the region, and uphold the shared values of democracy, the rule of law and peaceful settlement of the disputes, including the South China Sea.’

Will the Philippines acquiesce to the PR China’s future gambit to dominate the South China Sea? While it is too early to determine what exactly president Duterte’s long-term plans are, Beijing attempts to buy his allegiance through billions of dollars in loans and investment. Apparently, the PR China has agreed to invest $15 billion on infrastructure projects in the Philippines. Even more importantly, the PR China has ended its blockade of Scarborough Shoal, i.e. those maritime features rich in fishing grounds in the vicinity of the Philippine mainland over which Manila and Beijing had quarrelled.

ARE PRESIDENT DUTERTE’S MOVES RATIONAL?

While it cannot be claimed that the full transition from balancing to bandwagoning has been completed during president Duterte’s first months in office, a more equi-distant strategic position of the Philippines between two great powers is the new reality. According to one prominent view ‘he [president Duterte] is no longer willing to have the Philippines be a convenient forward staging area for the U.S. military and a geostrategic pawn in a containment policy directed against China’. Given president Duterte’s strong and undiplomatic rhetoric, his foreign plicy decisions appear emotional and irrational. Analyzing his decisions from a purely strategic viewpoint, on the other hand, turns him into a rationalist. Balancing against a regional great power can be risky, costly, and unsuccessful for a small state with limited military capabilitites like the Philippines. Firstly, if the Philippines accelerated their balancing efforts in the future, they could become entangled in a naval war against the PR China that they were more than unlikely to win. Also, Manila is in no economic condition to win a naval arms race against Beijing. In June 2016 president Duterte mentioned that the purchase of two FA-50 jet fighters from South Korea were ‘just a waste of money’ because they are not enough to challenge the PR China. Finally, it is far from clear that even the most ambitious Philippine balancing efforts would lead to tangible outcomes, i.e. preventing the PR China from dominating the South China Sea.

In fact, the Philippines’ balancing strategy 2011-2016 was dependant on the efforts of its external great power partners, the USA and Japan. However, apart from occassional freedom of navigation operations and diplomatic statements that call for the freedom of and open access to the sea lines of communication and skies, Washington and Tokyo have not taken sufficient measures to stop Beijing from reclaiming islands and building military facilities in the South China Sea. In other words, Beijing’s naval competitors were underbalancing in the South China Sea. This observation directly leads to the hypothesis that a rational president Duterte improved the Philippines’ relationship to the PR China because he could not rely on US and Japanese balancing efforts to secure Manila’s interests in the South China Sea.

THE WAY FORWARD

Can the regional great powers expect president Duterte to bring structure to his ambiguous course in the forthcoming months? Will the Philippines remain in the phalanx of maritime states led by the USA, Japan, and possibly India and Australia that prioritize freedom of navigation and overflight as well as unimpeded commerce in the South China Sea? Or will president Duterte refrain from any public comments that condemn Chinese naval actions, shy away from beefing up Manila’s naval capabilities, and stop military exercises with the USA and Japan? The Philippine supreme court has already warned president Duterte that ceding Scarborough Shoal would be unconstitutional, and thus an impeachable offence. Apparently, president Duterte is set to walk on a tightrope in 2017: bandwagoning with the PR China without forfeiting the Philippine claim in the South China Sea while not cutting its ties entirely to the  regional balancing coalition against the PR China.