The strategic environment in the South China Sea (SCS) has been changed by China’s increasing revisionism amidst the pandemic. Narrowing of power gaps due to China’s economic rise and US decline, is escalating the risk of unplanned encounters, with most of 2020 being characterized by increasingly frequent US Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs), and China’s People Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) surveillance of the SCS’s contested waters.

Given the altered security situation and the uncertainty of post Trump US foreign policy, it is time for foreign policy agents, namely Duterte, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Department of National Defense (DND) to reexamine the Philippine’s strategies based on light hedging with and accommodation of China and correspondingly, a diplomatic distanciation (distancing) from the US, albeit in the context of continuing Philippine-US military alliance. This, in view of an observation that since these choices no longer promote independence from hegemonic powers, they do not secure the Philippines from the consequences of power transition.

Foreign policy critics are pushing for a stronger stance against China.

Reacting to Duterte’s SONA on July 28 last year, Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said, “Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia are asserting their sovereign rights to their maritime zones against China’s claims.” He noted, “These countries do not go to war against China, and neither does China go to war against these countries.”

Relevant questions may be asked: What specific policy actions must be put in place if the Philippines were to adopt a “hardening” or smarter position vis-a-vis China, while mitigating the risk of economic coercion or punitive actions (such as boat sinking, unilateral moving of oil rigs, face off, etc.) or, worse, military confrontation? What strategies will allow for strategic maneuvering in the face of unpredictable structural change?

It should be highlighted that the DFA, the military and DND play differing balancing roles in the light of the Philippines’ positioning vis-a-vis superpower SCS rivalry. Since 2016, the DFA has stabilized Duterte’s posture vis-a-vis China through quiet diplomacy, filing note verbales to protest China’s transgressions in Philippine jurisdictional waters. However, on Feb 17, 2020, during the early stages of the pandemic, two diplomatic notes to protest the declaration of Spratlys as China’s new administrative district and the PLAN vessel’s pointing of radar gun towards the Philippines’ BRP Conrado Yap in the Spratly islands, may well be communicating a policy shift.

As in April 2020, the DFA’s contest of China’s sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the SCS acknowledged the UN arbitral ruling that Duterte underplayed for four years, to wit “(a)s we have said the creation of new facts in the water will never give rise to legal right anywhere or anytime.”

Additionally, DFA Secretary Teodoro Locsin took the opportunity to highlight the four-year-old ruling “overwhelmingly won” by the Philippines against China. Indeed a major turn around from the 2016 presidential decision to deemphasize the award — are these moves evidence of elements of hard hedging or smarter foreign policy response?

Under Duterte, the Philippines has tempered the extreme pro-US bandwagoning that Aquino III pursued during his term. By downgrading the scope of US-Philippines joint exercises to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) and delimiting joint military exercises from taking place in the SCS, Duterte redefined the nature of the PH-US military alliance, perceived as a necessary move to de-escalate heightened maritime tensions with China.

Distantiating from the US also meant signaling the review of the 69-year-old Mutual Defense Treaty, subjecting the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) to possible abrogation, and asserting the right of the government to determine its continuity or end.

The military and defense establishments are major actors that bridge the chasm between Duterte’s anti-US personal beliefs and actual practice.

Gleaning from the policy reversal behind the revocation of VFA’s cancellation, five months after its termination, it may be concluded that interactions between the executive and the military and the executive and defense are redirecting the “middle-ing” of the Philippines position in US-China rivalry.

Keeping the US alliance intact (in the context of “diplomatic distanciation”), allows the Philippines to position itself for harder forms of hedging with China. However, alliance relationships between small and great powers that used to define the cold war hub and spokes arrangement no longer reflect the once effective global security formula.

With the uncertainty of the PH-US alliance under Duterte, the Philippines should pluralize its strategic partnerships, if bilaterally, as practical tools for reinforcing harder hedging with China, targeting, specifically middle powers that support particular issue areas such as the maritime domain and defense, or maritime deterrence as in the case of our partnerships with Japan and India.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Philippines may rethink a middle power position and activate its diplomatic influence as a power resource that its peers, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam have achieved far better (as per Lowy Institute, 2020). ASEAN-led multilateral forums such as the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) provide a space for agenda setting. The 2017-2019 ADMM work plan undertaken under the purview of the Philippines’ chairship was focused on non-traditional security cooperation such as HADR, search and rescue, counterterrorism, marine environmental security, and regional defense. Undertaken as ADMM Plus, hegemonic powers (US and China) may be exposed to the socializing impact of the middle powers of the ASEAN and the Asia Pacific.

Indeed Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia are able to stand up against China’s unhinged behavior in the SCS. Their actions, however, do not come without strategizing bilateral or multilateral partnerships and not without “oppositional” actions that require them to significantly engage China in defense and trade as do Indonesia and Vietnam; or as Vietnam balances hard hedging with party to party talks while maintaining a China supported policy of neutrality (3 No’s); or as Malaysia engages in quiet diplomacy in the face of a recent survey ship standoff or as Indonesia and Malaysia structure their foreign policy choices in terms of middle power diplomacy.


Alma Maria O. Salvador is an Assistant Professor of Political Science of the Ateneo de Manila University