Crossing the Rubicon by Feeling the Stones: Calculated Balancing Between Major Powers

by Lucio Pitlo III / Nov 16, 2016 / Originally posted at ChinaUSFocus

Despite being just past 100 days in office, President Rodrigo Duterte had already put his country, the Philippines, under global spotlight. Reactions to his leadership style ranged from praise and fascination to criticism and suspicion. Elected by more than 16 million people – more than 6 million votes ahead of his next contender – he has definitely garnered enormous publicity, not only at home, but also abroad, thanks to his grassroots appeal, and decisiveness, unorthodox leadership approach. Critics tend to harp on his rough demeanor – his penchant for expletives and seeming non-observance of protocol and formalities – and lack of coherent vision. He has also been criticized for creating unnecessary uncertainty in Philippine foreign relations that exacerbates regional anxiety and adversely affects politico-security dynamics in the Asia-Pacific. But beyond his strong populist rhetoric are clear elements of a national foreign policy grounded on Philippine domestic imperatives and evolving regional and global architecture.

Duterte promised to fulfill the Constitutional mandate of pursuing an independent foreign policy. One of his statements in relation to this subject captures its essence – crossing the Rubicon, an expression that means crossing the point of no return. What is this Rubicon? Why do the Philippines have to cross it? And how should the country navigate such crossing?
Duterte personifies Filipinos who believed that the country had relied too much on the US, particularly for its external defense, for too long. In a unipolar world order with the U.S. at the apex, such free riding on U.S. security guarantee was expedient, enabling the country to prioritize domestic economic and social concerns at the expense of neglecting territorial and maritime defense in the long run. But in an increasingly multipolar world order with new emerging powers gradually chipping away, if not directly challenging, U.S. supremacy, particularly in the East Asian region, continued overdependence on the U.S. could become counterproductive as it limits the country’s security partners. Such dependence can also constitute a liability in the event of major power rivalry, with Philippines, rightly or wrongly, being seen as overtly leaning towards the U.S. camp. The South China Sea (SCS) flashpoint is evolving into a contest between big naval powers, and Duterte clearly wants to steer his country away from such major power competition. Such conflict may arise from miscalculations given U.S. freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS), and China’s strong opposition to deployments of military assets by external powers in its near seas. Thus, intensifying U.S.-China rivalry in SCS, has the potential of inflicting collateral damage to the Philippines should hostilities break out between the two powers. It must be noted that the presence of U.S. bases and troops in the country made it a legitimate target for Japanese attacks during World War II causing the country to be one of the most seriously devastated in the Far East.
Furthermore, an ambiguous U.S. position on whether the features and waters on West Philippine Sea are included in the 1951 PH-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty or not and inadequate transfer of military hardware raises Philippines’ vulnerability. Failure on the part of the U.S. to defuse tensions in Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) in 2012 through simultaneous Philippines-China maritime law and futility of FONOPS in preventing China from completing construction of artificial islands in SCS made Duterte realize the limits of U.S. role for the country’s security, especially when push comes to shove. All these compel Duterte to recalibrate security engagement with the U.S. Crossing the Rubicon can, thus, be equated with weaning away from excessive security reliance on US, a move seen by the President as necessary to reflect the changing times. For Duterte, it is not wise for the country to put all its eggs in one basket. External defense cannot be outsourced, even to a longstanding ally. Recent renewed tensions over SCS should not hijack long-term development of homegrown capability to defend the country’s territory, sovereignty, and sovereign rights. Moreover, there are many ways of securing such national interests even for militarily disadvantaged states, and he seems opened in exploring this whole gamut.
As a longtime mayor of a city in the largely troubled south, Duterte clearly knows how security affects politics and economics. Eastern Mindanao, including Davao Region, is a stronghold of the communist New People’s Army and Muslim rebels are located not far. Transforming Davao City from a lawless area to a safe and thriving metropolis gave him practical lessons that would later found relevance on a bigger scale. Duterte had developed an ability to deal with different political forces to advance peace and stability conducive for commerce and development in his city.
Although he is clearly an outsider in Philippine national politics and has no actual foreign policy background, his actions suggest a fair understanding of evolving regional dynamics. If crossing the Rubicon means reducing dependence on U.S., especially for external security, it can be argued that many of the country’s Southeast Asian neighbors have long began advancing towards this direction. Diversifying arms suppliers, partnering with other countries to produce arms at home, and expanding military linkages with multiple security partners are among the key steps they have taken to enhance their respective national security in an increasingly multipolar world order.
Indonesia has been conducting joint naval exercises with China, India, U.S., and Australia, aside from hosting a multilateral naval exercise (Komodo); Malaysia with China, India, Japan, U.S., and Australia and; Vietnam with France, Japan, and U.S. Indonesia, and Malaysia; and Thailand had procured Chinese (e.g. surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles and air search radars) and Russian arms and Vietnam had long been buying Russian arms (and now can buy U.S. arms as well). Thailand is buying 3 Chinese submarines, and Malaysia is about to purchase Chinese littoral mission ships. Russia, another country with which President Duterte wants to establish strong relations, had transferred amphibious tanks and Yakhont supersonic missiles to Indonesia, and Jakarta also expressed interest to acquire Russian Kilo-class submarines. Duterte’s announcement that he may procure Chinese (or even Russian) arms should therefore come as no surprise – many regional states have Chinese and Russian assets, along with Western-made weapons, in their respective arsenals. Similarly, considering joint naval exercises with China also jives with increasing regional practice.
However, in crossing the Rubicon, President Duterte must proceed with caution – he must feel the stones. Domestic public sentiment, economic demands and priorities, and international reaction, notably by East Asian neighbors, will be key considerations for him. The Filipino public welcomed his visits to key economic partners, China and Japan, and will be looking forward having the multi-billion dollar investments and credit facilities translated on the ground the soon. Domestic peace, order, and stability, coupled with good economic fundamentals (e.g. investment grade rating, fast growing GDP), will allow the country to corner more investments that will create jobs and sustain its improving economic performance. China is an emerging outbound investor with a demonstrated financial, technological, and engineering capacity to accomplish major infrastructure projects, such as railways, which can have a transformative impact on Philippine economic development. China’s entry into the global infrastructure market, in fact, compelled traditional players like Japan to rewrite part of their financing conditions to keep up with competition from more flexible Chinese lending terms. That the U.S. was not active in this sector encouraged Duterte to seriously consider the Chinese offer, particularly when the regional context is considered- China is already building Southeast Asia’s first high speed train in Indonesia (Jakarta-Bandung railway), constructing a port and industrial park in Malaysia (Kuantan), and building a network of railways that would link Kunming and Singapore, beginning with the section in Thailand.
Disputes over West Philippine Sea (WPS) had dominated bilateral relations during the previous Aquino Administration, and Duterte seems uninterested in continuing with this policy. If disputes can be managed well, Philippines can focus on its domestic priorities, while contributing to easing of regional tensions. However, this cannot be taken as a suggestion of his lack of interest in pursuing national interests in WPS. Visits to fellow ASEAN states with which China also has disputes over SCS, namely Vietnam, Indonesia and Brunei, and Japan, with which China also has some disputes with over features and waters in the East China Sea, and the fact that “South China Sea” appeared 8 times and “disputes” 4 times in the Joint Philippines-China Statement after his China visit indicates the high importance set by the President on this issue. Duterte’s trip to China was said to be largely economically–motivated, but he promised that Filipino fishermen will be able to resume fishing in Bajo de Masinloc – a promise that he delivered. Duterte seems cognizant of the pressing livelihood and needs of small-scale fishermen affected by the disputes and wants to bring them immediate relief while the larger politico-security aspects of the disputes are being discussed. This pragmatic approach was warmly received. Duterte also seems to realize that ASEAN remains divided on SCS and that individual ASEAN claimant states had, in fact, been pursuing quiet diplomacy with China while supporting multilateral forums for managing the dispute. In this sense, it can be said that he is feeling the stones.
Duterte’s presidency can be situated in a continuing trend to carve an autonomous space from major power rivalry, manage intractable disputes that seems difficult to be resolved in the immediate term, and benefit from economic engagement with the world’s second largest economy. However, such efforts by former Philippine leaders had checkered results. President Ramos was able to defuse the tensions arising from 1995 Mischief Reef incident, but this feature is now under Chinese occupation. President Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA) engaged China for infrastructure deals that were later discontinued because of corruption and irregularities. She also entered into a joint marine seismic undertaking with China and Vietnam that were later considered as compromising the country’s national interests in WPS, although the concept of joint resource development itself is encouraged by UNCLOS and enjoys substantial state practice, including from regional states (e.g. Malaysia-Thailand and Malaysia-Vietnam offshore energy cooperation, Vietnam-China fisheries cooperation over Tonkin/Beibu Gulf).
Duterte brought home $24 billion of investments and credit facilities from his successful state visit to China and this includes funding for infrastructure projects. The GMA experience may have left a deep imprint on Duterte and this was reflected in item 24 of the Philippines-China Joint Statement post-visit: “… Both sides agree that infrastructure cooperation which are jointly undertaken will be subject to proper procurement process, transparency and in compliance with relevant domestic laws and regulations and international practices.” His tough talk against corruption and anomalies in state transactions may be put to test in the flurry of deals about to take place. As for joint development in WPS, he seems uninclined to pursue the same saying that he would need consent of Congress and the Filipino people. This demonstrates his respect for the executive-legislative separation and interdependence of powers and approval of his constituency.
In sum, Duterte realizes that he needs to lead his country to cross the Rubicon – almost every other Southeast Asian state had already crossed it. Regional states have long been diversifying both their economic and security partners to spread risk and to avoid getting entangled in big power tussles. Moreover, Philippines has been increasing its trade with neighboring East Asian states, while territorial and maritime disputes continue to pose a challenge to this burgeoning economic relations. Transnational security challenges such as drug trafficking, smuggling, piracy and cross-border crimes also create natural spaces for cooperation with neighboring coastal states. This would explain the greater emphasis he is according to the country’s immediate neighborhood. However, crossing the Rubicon must be done with caution and moderation. Uncertainties and ambiguities may be necessary for freedom of action and maneuverability, but freefalling to one side should be avoided.
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