Thinking Beyond Politics

In diplomacy and foreign relations, appeasement refers to a state’s effort to mollify or pacify, but not necessarily align with, a revisionist power. An appeasing state could extend diplomatic concessions to a revisionist power without necessarily aligning or subordinating its foreign policy with the latter’s. Appeasement can either complement a bandwagoning policy because a weak power is vulnerable to external pressure and has little capacity to confront the threatening power. Alternatively, it can supplement a state’s balancing strategies, in the same way that “talking tough” and leveling coercive threats can accompany or preclude taking concrete measures to improve one’s power relative to the threatening state.

A state appeases a revisionist power to prevent a conflict it cannot win or to acquire resources without necessarily aligning with the source of threats. In many instances, the provision of foreign economic assistance can affect a small power’s decision on whether or not it seeks to balance a revisionist power because it provides a clear and credible signal that the latter does not have any aggressive intention.

Since 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte has pursued an appeasement policy toward China, aimed at unravelling President Benigno Aquino’s policy of challenging the Asian power’s expansive claim in the South China Sea. He has extended the following diplomatic concessions to China: a) he distances his country from its long-standing treaty ally, the U.S., and gravitates toward an emergent regional power, China, bent on affecting a territorial reconfiguration in East Asia, and b) he has set aside the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) award to the Philippines in the South China Sea dispute. The Duterte administrations yields these diplomatic concessions to earn China’s goodwill. This is because it intends to harness Chinese financial resources under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to fund several major infrastructure projects under the Build, Build, Build program.

President Duterte and his closest economic advisers saw how Chinese investments boosted infrastructure development in Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia. They also observed that China’s BRI plans for increased connectivity among Southeast Asian countries through roads, railways, sea routes, airways, and the internet to promote unimpeded trade, policy-coordination, and financial integration. At the onset of his six-year term in June 2016, President Duterte sought a dramatic increase in Chinese investment and infrastructure projects in the southern part of the Philippines. He hoped that this massive inflow of Chinese development funds would facilitate the peaceful settlement of the Moro secessionist conflict, allow for both peaceful development, and create efficient connections to remote markets through the New Maritime Silk Road.

President Duterte, however, has not aligned or subordinated Philippine foreign policy to China’s revisionist goal of maritime expansion. He still challenges China’s expansionist goal. He has implemented the following policies: a) he has downgraded his country’s security relations with the U.S. but has not abrogated the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and has even allowed the conduct of several Philippine-U.S. joint military exercises in the South China Sea; b) he continued to bankroll the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) modernization program, aimed at developing the Philippine military’s territorial defense capabilities against China; and c) he has fostered a security partnership with Japan, China’s traditional rival in East Asia.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (R) with Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) during the state banquet at the Rizal hall of Malacañang on Nov. 20, 2018 — RUSSELL PALMA/POOL PHOTO

Facilitating China’s efforts to project its maritime power in the Western Pacific, however, is adversely affecting the Philippines’ territorial and long-term strategic and economic interests as an archipelagic state. By appeasing an expansionist power, the Philippines is complicit to China’s long-term strategy of maritime expansion aimed to push the U.S. out of East Asia. It has also become a partner of China in its destruction of at least 28 coral reefs across the South China Sea. The Philippines is also conniving with China in upsetting the balance of power in the region and, more significantly, causing the slow demise of the Southeast Asian maritime order, which is based on an open, liberal, and global system. This is because the appeasement policy on China has the following implications:

The Duterte administration has prevented the formation of a coalition of states that can implement the 2016 UNCLOS ruling. The UNCLOS award produced the basis and motivation for cooperation among all the states that are threatened by China’s maritime expansion and consequently are supportive of the UNCLOS award to the Philippines. However, by appeasing China, the Philippines has lost any motivation and moral high ground to form and lead this coalition of states. Instead, it subscribes to China’s preferred solutions to the South China Sea imbroglio — bilateral negotiations and joint development.

The current administration has also widened the cleavage within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The ASEAN has the potential to constrain China from expanding into the South China Sea and unravelling the regional maritime order. China, however, has effectively neutralized the regional organization by creating division within the member states of ASEAN through its Salami strategy. This involves China offering each claimant state a joint development venture as a means of resolving the dispute. By accepting China’s offer of joint development, the Philippines has effectively widened the division within ASEAN and has effectively weakened this regional association vis-à-vis this expansionist power.

Finally, the Duterte administration’s appeasement policy has further emboldened China to pursue its goal of expansion in the South China Sea and in the process unravel Southeast Asia’s maritime order. Relevant to the dispute, the launching of the BRI in 2013 enabled China to foster greater stability in its bilateral relations with the disputant states. China offered to finance several BRI-related infrastructure projects in the Philippines. As a result, China was able to influence the Duterte administration in distancing the Philippines from the United States, and altering the Aquino administration’s policy of challenging Chinese maritime expansion. China’s ability to change the Philippines’ foreign policy relative to the dispute is further encouraging this emergent power to pursue its expansion agenda in the South China Sea, transforming what used to be a global, open, and liberal maritime order in the region into something that is severely outdated.


Dr. Renato Cruz De Castro is Trustee and Convenor of the National Security and East Asian Affairs Program, Stratbase ADR Institute.