I am pleased to share with readers excerpts from a post my GlobalSource Partners (globalsourcepartners.com) co-author, Christine Tang, and I released to subscribers recently.
Last week, critics of President Rodrigo Duterte finally found something to thank him for. In his first address to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly since assuming the presidency four years ago, the President asserted the Philippine’s territorial sovereignty over disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea/South China Sea (WPS/SCS). The dispute with regional giant China, was the subject of an international arbitration case initiated by the previous administration in 2014 but which was awarded to the Philippines only in 2016, a few weeks after President Duterte took office.
While the President had over the years avoided openly confronting China on the issue, his UN speech struck a different tone. “We firmly reject attempts to undermine it,” he said of the arbitral award which “is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon.”
The President’s unexpected outright assertion of the Philippine’s rights has been interpreted variously as:
1. There is no change in foreign policy. The President’s spokesperson explained the statement simply thus: “It’s the first time that the President spoke in UN General Assembly. So it’s the first time that the President was able to say what has been his consistent position all along.” Observers note that even China may not give the speech much attention knowing that the Philippines has never really turned its back on the Hague verdict and in fact, the assertion has no real effect on the situation in the WPS/SCS.
2. This is a reversal in foreign policy; the President is pivoting away from China. Per this view, it is about time that the President reversed course on his overly pro-China stance considering that the Philippines has little to show for all the efforts to curry its favor. Data from the finance department show that despite promises of substantial Chinese financing for strategic infrastructure projects, the amounts of actual loan agreements signed pale in comparison with Japan. Too, reports suggest that online gaming activities are at risk of disappearing as China clamps down on gambling-related money transfers at a time when the sector is already facing increased domestic regulatory scrutiny. Online gaming has been a major source of domestic economic growth in recent years, bringing in fresh investments in the property sector and hundreds of thousands of Chinese tourists/workers to cater to a predominantly Chinese market. What’s more, critics claim, China’s continuing belligerence in the WPS/SCS may be seen in reports of militarization of the artificial islands it constructed and of Filipino fishermen being driven away from their traditional fishing grounds.
3. This is not about the territorial dispute per se but about access to COVID-19 vaccine. Per this view, the President, who has pinned hopes for an economic recovery on the discovery of a vaccine soon, is just hedging his bets, not knowing which country will be the first to secure regulatory approval for a vaccine against COVID-19. Having obtained China’s commitment to give the Philippines access, he is now trying to repair ties with the West and the entire speech, written by seasoned diplomats, is intended to project the President as one who stands for the rule of law or as he said, “the majesty of the law.” To this end, the speech also denounced “interest groups” that he said have “weaponized” human rights to discredit his fight against “illegal drugs, criminality and terrorism.” In proposing “open dialogue and constructive engagement” with the UN, a body that he had repeatedly scolded in the past for its officials’ criticisms of alleged human rights abuses under his administration, the speech may be seen as a means of softening the President’s strongman image internationally, raising the odds that vaccine assistance will be forthcoming.
4. In the same vein, a broader view argues that it is not just about the vaccine but other goodies from the West that an overly pro-China posture may impede. The speech is thus a reaction to recent parliamentary actions in both Europe and the US: the former, asking the European Commission to suspend the GSP+ trade privilege enjoyed by a quarter of the Philippine’s exports to the region; the latter, a proposed Philippine Human Rights Act in the US Congress that would suspend US security assistance to the Philippines pending reforms to strengthen human rights protection. The latter also brings to mind actions taken by the President at the height of the pandemic prompted perhaps by the pro-US military establishment, i.e., the suspension of the termination of the visiting forces agreement with the US and the granting of absolute pardon to an American serviceman for the killing of a Filipino transgender woman in 2014.
5. The above, taken a step further, could also mean that the speech is in fact not about foreign policy but the President playing to a domestic audience, both military and civilian, at a time when the pandemic and government’s response have taken a toll on his popularity and he himself is considering end of term uncertainties (not to mention woes of four of the Philippine’s last six presidents). Surveys show that Filipinos are generally trustful of the US and distrustful of China, with a majority favoring more forceful assertion of the country’s rights in the WPS/SCS. The same mindset characterizes the military which has over the decades forged close ties with US forces and is generally suspicious of China. This posturing of standing up to China, it is argued, would improve the President’s domestic image. Moreover, the argument goes, if the President were thinking of succession planning as he must be, the speech would deprive the opposition of a hot-button issue that could be used against his anointed, potentially, daughter and Davao Mayor Sara Duterte who recently found herself at the center of a controversy involving Facebook’s deletion of over 100 mostly China-based fake accounts campaigning for her presidency in 2022.
So which one is it? It seems to us that the motivations behind the speech are not mutually exclusive and the question is to what extent the President can walk the talk when it comes to dealing with China.
We had previously likened the Duterte administration’s China pivot to a pendulum swinging from an overly pro-US stance under the previous administration to an overly pro-China stance, looking forward to the day when it would return to center. We do not think that that day has arrived; but one can never tell with this President. In the meantime, the President can bask in the more favorable reviews given his speech domestically, something that has been sorely missing since the pandemic, and continue to work on strengthening his hand in the run up to the 2022 election.
Romeo L. Bernardo was finance undersecretary during the Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos administrations.