Three years after his election on May 9, 2016, the Philippine midterm elections this year will serve as a litmus test of President Rodrigo Duterte’s actions, including his decisions to recalibrate Philippine treaty relations with the US and pivot to China. In 2016, Duterte downplayed the ITCLOS arbitral award and entered into a policy of economic rapprochement with China. Three years thereafter, how do we assess Duterte’s foreign policy choices? Here, I seek to explain the hedging strategies of the Duterte government towards China by examining relevant literature on weak states’ hedging strategies and Great Power competition. It is also my objective to frame Duterte’s foreign policy as an outcome of the uncertain post-cold war unipolar environment, and of the interplay of domestic and state preferences in foreign policy.

There has been no other time when scholars have become more keenly interested in China’s challenge to US hegemony than in the late nineties to the 2000s. In a 2005 article published in the Wall Street Journal Asia, Joseph Nye compared US and China’s power and concluded that China was not only a distant match to US military and economic power, it was, compared to the US, a weaker soft power. Soft power is an important point of reference, because it underscores the global reach of the US-led liberal democratic institutions and their role in global ordering.

Yet, China has already made an incredible growth leap at 15%, from only 2% in the late seventies. Her military advancement is evident. With Trump’s rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, China, through the One Belt One Road, leverages against the US beyond the Pacific Rim.

From a perspective of “power transition,” the above scenario reflects David Lai’s notion of a “second phase” in US-China relations (2009-2050) or the period of perceived power parity between US and China. At this moment, China, having gained in internal power due in big part through its recent industrialization, evolves as a challenger to the US’ long-standing hegemony in the international order. China’s dissatisfaction with US hegemony and the heightened enmity between the two powers may lead to war.

Hedging has been Duterte’s primary response to the uncertain power transition by an assertive China in the South China Sea (SCS) and the US, ambiguous in its commitment to the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). In balancing our relationship with these competing powers, hedging seeks to ensure that the Philippines is no more than loyal to only one state by maximizing benefits from both powers and at the same time incorporating measures as a fallback from abandonment. As a middle ground to great power politics, weak states employ hedging strategies, which Cheng-Chwee Kuik defines as a smart tool based on “mutually counteracting” policies of benefit-maximization and contradiction.

Given the challenges of power shifts in the SCS, Duterte has had to effect a demonstrable separation from its ally by “downgrading” treaty relations, with a substantial reduction of joint patrols, refocusing of Balikatan war games, and a cancellation of CARAT war exercises, while at the same time maintaining the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT,1951), Visiting Forces Agreement (1998) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (2014) as the hallmarks of Philippines-US relations. These moves were imperative when PH-China relations were at their lowest in 2016, mainly as a result of President Benigno Aquino III’s policy of full bandwagoning to the US.

Today, the Defense and the Executive Departments’ initiatives to review the MDT are anchored on a continuing quest for US assurance to enforce article 4 in case of an external attack. Defense Secretary Lorenzana’s interest is in the clarification of the treaty’s ambiguous language such the coverage of “armed attack,” particularly actions short of force, as in a foreign power’s installation of military structures in the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone.

There is a number of written works on the logic of hedging by weak states, but the arguments by National Defense College researcher Mico Galang, who contextualized foreign policy analysis under Duterte, on the theory of power transition, resonate with the points here. Like other scholars such as Inge Bekkevold and Pan Zhenqian, among others, Galang has argued that the cold war lens no longer presents a viable framework for foreign policies based on US-China bipolarity, where the dynamic transcends ideological dichotomies.

To examine Duterte’s rapprochement solely in terms of economic maximization towards China is to provide an incomplete picture of his simultaneous hedging with the US as a risk-contingency measure against continuing Chinese assertions, post ITCLOS arbitration. Hence it is of import to qualify the measures that were put in place in 2018. Last year, US and Philippine top officials held a groundbreaking of EDCA’s humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) warehouse construction project in Cesar Basa Air Base in Pampanga. Duterte resumed the joint Balikatan exercises and launched the Sama-sama and Kamandag counter-terror and HADR-oriented trainings. More strategically, he approved the budget for the second horizon of arms modernization — a move to enforce and support the military’s planned shift to territorial defense.

It is significant to note that the connection between the Philippine military and the US has been fostered by decades of long cooperation on key security issues, US aid to AFP’s modernization, and adoption of core military doctrines. Coupled with the historical primacy of the military in maintaining regime stability, Duterte could not have opted for an absolute pivot to China.

Finally, it is important to look into how these counteracting practices of loyalty and defection are further supported by a diversification of our security partners to actors like Japan and Russia, a topic that I intend to pursue in my next column.


Alma Maria O. Salvador is an Assistant Professor of Political Science. Acknowledgement goes to her masters students of PoS 230 section A, SY II-19/20, who shared their thoughts on the theory of power transition: Dustin Abad, Samantha Alcantara, James Amsua, Mikaela Bona, Jayson Cervantes. Angel Chan, Chester Consigna, Tamara Damary, Geliq Garcia, Kenneth Magallones, Heisenberg Rivarez, Nia Tiu, Carrisa Galla and Stephanie Valera.