From USA to China: reasons for the failure of The Philippines’ foreign policy


President Rodrigo R. Duterte joins other ASEAN heads of states, holding hands as a symbol of unity, during the second day of the ASEAN Summit at the National Convention Center in Vientiane, Laos on September 7. (KING RODRIGUEZ/PPD)
President Rodrigo R. Duterte joins other ASEAN heads of states, holding hands as a symbol of unity, during the second day of the ASEAN Summit at the National Convention Center in Vientiane, Laos on September 7. (KING RODRIGUEZ/PPD)

by  annadpk

There has been a lot commentary among Filipinos on Duterte’s recent trip to China. People are getting emotional, accusing Duterte of selling out to China, and there are people who call him a strategic genius. I think Duterte is neither. My opinion, in Beijing he had an unenviable job, basically what Duterte did in Beijing was a salvage job. The Hague ruling, in the long run, is good for the Philippines, but in the short run, it creates complications. It increases the possibility that the Chinese will build on the Scarborough Shoal. The longer the Chinese don’t build on the Shoal the better it is for the Philippines). Duterte’s main goal in Beijing was to stop the Chinese from building in the Scarborough Shoal because it could escalate tensions with the US, and The Philippines would have lost it forever.

Duterte groveling wasn’t for the Chinese government, but the Chinese public

Duterte by bashing the US and drawing the Philippines closer to China, he is trying to reassure the Chinese. Duterte groveling wasn’t for the Chinese government, but the Chinese public. Modern China isn’t like China of the past, public opinion does count. Will it matters if 1-2 years down the line, the Chinese government screws Duterte, and builds on the shoal, then Duterte can turn around and say the “Is that how you treat a friend?!!”

People forget that the Chinese screwed Aquino over. Chinese investment and loan packages tend to have low realization, if XXX country signs $30 Billion worth of investment deals and loans, take the $30 Billion, and drop the zero, (that is what you are going to get) [http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2015/04/04/indonesia-push-china-realize-investment.html] . For Duterte and for an investment grade country like the Philippines, Billions in soft loans is chump change, but it is cheap money, so why not !! I don’t think Duterte was too concerned about investments, to be frank. The Beijing trip was a salvage operation, I think he accomplished his goal at least for now, and like all salvage operations, it is ugly to watch.

Duterte is pro-Chinese and anti-American, but he isn’t pro-Chinese/anti-American enough to sell out the country

Duterte is pro-Chinese and anti-American, but he isn’t pro-Chinese/anti-American enough to sell out the country. I think the anti-US theatrics for the last couple of weeks was a build up for this trip, to establish “sincerity”. What Duterte was doing is tactics; he doesn’t have authority or power to alter Philippines strategic orientation 180 degrees. Filipino’s shouldn’t be blaming Duterte, because for a country to get to the point, where its President has to do a dog and pony show, is a result of conceptual , systematic and institutional failures stretching back over a quarter of a century, or since the US pulled out of Subic and Clark. Even if he was selling out his country, if The Philippines had strong institutions he wouldn’t be able to do it. Philippines foreign policy failure over the last generation results from a:

  • Cold War Mentality
  • Over-reliance on paper not enough on steel and diplomacy
  • Lack of understanding of the strategic environment and history
  • Poor institutional capability.

I haven’t written a post like this for months, but I felt what I have to say would be worth reading. Filipinos should ask how it got so bad

The first reason for Philippines foreign policy failure since 1991 is it suffers from a Cold War Mentality – Policy makers, journalist, politicians and the educated public often talk about alliances. To be fair, it is not just the Filipinos, but many in the West also. First off, China isn’t the Soviet Union, there isn’t this ideological conflict, nor is the game zero sum. This is especially true in South China Seas. A country like the Philippines shouldn’t try to spend too much time discerning what the Chinese or US intentions are in SCS. The most important thing for the Philippines is the SCS for both countries isn’t that important. The US has virtually no military assets in SEA, and the Chinese are hardly better. Most of the aggression undertaken by China is through the use of their coast guard and fishermen. China has about 800-900 4th generation fighters in total, and about 800 1960s generation jets which are largely used for defense. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have in total about 800 4th generation fighters, and the Americans themselves have another 400 4th generation jets in Japan and Korea. Seriously, how many Jets do you think the Chinese can divert to the SCS?

Philippine gets around US$188 Million per year in security aid from the US, Egypt gets around US$1.5 Billion

Secondly, the most fundamental difference between now and the Cold War is the economic disparity between the US and the Philippines. Philippine gets around US$188 Million per year in security aid from the US, Egypt gets around US$1.5 Billion. Whether its 1.5 Billion or 10 Million, it is largely irrelevant today. The Philippines budget next year is US$ 70 Billion, the US can increase aid to US$1.5 Billion, that is 2% of Philippines government spending. In a decade that could drop to 0.75%. During the 1980s, the US could give US$750 Million (1.5 Billion in today’s dollars), and cover 40% of Philippine’s budget.

The same thinking applies to China. Philippine’s economy is so large, that to match China’s aid to Cambodia in % GDP terms, China would have to cough up $30 Billion a year. China hasn’t been a big investor in the more ASEAN countries (i.e. Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand) because they are competing against established Taiwanese, Western, Korean and Japanese investors. The total capital stock under control under their control in Maritime SEA and Thailand is easily in the trillions of US$. Two years ago when there were anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam, almost all the factories that were hit were non-Chinese factories (Mainly Taiwanese, Korean, Hong Kong or Japanese). The Vietnamese rioters thought they were targeting mainland Chinese firms because some Mainland Chinese worked there, but it turns out they were Taiwanese factories.

Philippines foreign policy over the last 25 years has been characterized by an over-reliance on international law and pieces of paper and not enough on military force and diplomacy

Philippines foreign policy over the last 25 years has been characterized by an over-reliance on international law and pieces of paper and not enough on military force and diplomacy. During the Cold War, the Philippines with Subic and Clark, Filipinos didn’t have to worry about external defense. When the Americans left, the Philippines thought that the Defense agreement with the US was enough. As events have shown it isn’t. The defense agreement was designed for the Cold War, and when the US had bases in the Philippines. Of course, the US will defend the Philippines when they had 20000-30000 military personnel and dependents stationed in the Philippines. The US isn’t going to divert forces from East Asia to defend a shoal.

After the US left, the Philippines should have started beefing up its external defense, buying 4th generation fighters, frigates etc. The 1997 incident over Mischief Reef, should have been enough warning to the Philippines that it need to take external defense seriously. The problem with the Philippines is it thinks like a Latin American country. Asia is a dangerous place, both before, during and after colonization. Chinese incursions into Scarborough Shoal would have been stopped in 2012 by a Squadron of F16 and 3-4 modern Frigates. The Chinese aren’t going to risk a shooting war with an adequately armed Philippines. China’s whole strategy in SCS is one of salami slicing using coast guard and fishermen. War is unpredictable, say if a Filipino F16 sinks a Chinese frigate, if Chinese loses if it retaliates or doesn’t do anything. Aquino strategy of going to an international tribunal was one of desperation. In general, superpowers follow international law most of the time, but disregard it when important interest is at stake. The Chinese considered the SCS its traditional sphere of influence and wasn’t going to allow external bodies / powers to interfere.

The West wanted China to pay tag to team wrestling (accept international law) , the Chinese want to fight MMA (Realpolitik). Can a smaller power take on China in MMA? Yes, it can. A good example is how Indonesia handled Chinese incursions into Natuna. The Indonesians didn’t try to draw in external players; they didn’t submit a case to a UN or international tribunal. It didn’t try to do tag team wrestling and accepted China MMA challenge. The Indonesians stance on Natuna is its Indonesia’s, and it doesn’t recognize China’s claims and refuse to talk about it. Most Western commentators wanted Indonesia to say there is a dispute, hoping Indonesia will join others in a diplomatic move.

An Indonesian frigate fired warning shots the Chinese boats and they didn’t comply, then the Indonesian fired across the bow of one ship with a cannon, supposedly injuring one Chinese fisherman. The ship stopped and complied, while the rest of the ships fled. A Chinese Coast Guard vessel was at the scene but didn’t intervene.

Most Filipino newspapers reported Jokowi’s trip to Natuna couple of months ago. But they didn’t really cover the three Chinese incursions by Chinese fisherman and Chinese coastguard. Here is a description. In the last incident at the end of June, the Indonesians were already using their Navy. An Indonesian frigate fired warning shots the Chinese boats and they didn’t comply, then the Indonesian fired across the bow of one ship with a cannon, supposedly injuring one Chinese fisherman. The ship stopped and complied, while the rest of the ships fled. A Chinese Coast Guard vessel was at the scene but didn’t intervene. The Chinese accused Indonesia of violating UNCLOS. In the last two months Jokowi has visited Natuna twice, and two weeks ago, the Indonesian Airforce had a military exercise involving all 70 of its fighters off of Natuna. The Indonesians are extending Natuna’s airfields and planning to build a sub base.

Indonesia has complimented its military resolve with actions on the diplomatic front. One of China’s most sensitive issues is her relations with Taiwan. Both Philippines and Indonesia have extensive relations with Taiwan, Indonesian make up the largest number of foreign workers in Taiwan, followed by Filipinos. Taiwan is a big investor in both countries. In 2011, Aquino, before the Scarborough Shoal incident, Aquino deported 14 Taiwanese to Mainland China who was operating phone scams in the Philippines targeted people in China. China demanded that they are sent back to Taiwan. This is because of the one China policy. The Taiwanese threatened to stop hiring Filipino workers, but for Aquino, it was either China or Taiwan.

The Chinese screwed Aquino, and Duterte is going public hoping he can stop that from happening to him

Malaysia also deported some Taiwanese back to China for a similar crime. Relations with China in 2011 were good, Aquino had a state visit to China in 2011. However, in 2012, the Chinese seized the Scarborough Shoal. People who say that Aquino was too pro-US are wrong, he didn’t start off that way. The Chinese screwed Aquino, and Duterte is going public hoping he can stop that from happening to him. During the first incursion in April, Indonesia caught Taiwanese in Jakarta for phones scams targeting people in Mainland China. While Indonesia, also has a one-China policy, they deported the Taiwanese back to Taiwan as they always do , and ignored Chinese threats, and told China this is our country and we can deport people to where ever we like. This decision was part of Indonesia diplomatic moves against China, but it also strengthened its relations with Taiwan, because for a diplomatically isolated Taiwan, any country that stands up to China on their behalf wins a lot of brownie points with them.

Despite all this, the Chinese are still investing in Indonesia, they are building a high-speed railway from Jakarta- Bandung (even that is slow going), Indonesia is a member of China’s AIIB and also wants to join the TPP. Basically, Indonesia is getting what Duterte got, without having to comprise its territorial integrity.

Despite all this, the Chinese are still investing in Indonesia … China can’t use the divide and rule strategy [with Indonesia] the way she does with the Philippines or Vietnam

Why are the Indonesian’s able to do what they do with China? First Indonesians are Sinophobic as well as nationalistic. This is where Chinese propaganda kinda of helps the Indonesians. Chinese state media accuses Indonesia of murdering 400,000 ethnic Chinese in 1965, the real number is around 4000 out of the 500,000 killed in the anti-Communist purges. Imagine if you are Chinese fishermen or Coast guard, going into Natuna, that is most likely in the back of your mind. Secondly, the big Chinese Indonesian tycoons don’t get involved in politics. China can’t use the divided and rule strategy she does with The Philippines or Vietnam. When the President of Indonesia goes to Natuna, important members of the Cabinet go along with him, to show China, that Indonesian is united. The division within the elite in Vietnam, a country known for standing up to China, is the main reason why they haven’t stood up to China. For The Philippines, there was no consensus even after 1997 Mischief Reef incident to shore up Philippines Navy and Airforce, in fact, GMA weakened those two branches.

In my opinion, the main reason is to turn Maritime SEA into Mainland SEA. China’s moves into SCS are offensive

Filipino policy makers and elites don’t have a good understanding of the strategic environment and the region’s history. There have been many theories about why the Chinese want control over the SCS, they range from defense, control over the Western Pacific, control of access critical sea routes, oil, and gas, fish. In my opinion, the main reason is to turn Maritime SEA into Mainland SEA. China’s moves into SCS are offensive. In Mainland SEA economies (Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) are more dependent on China, so China can use its hefty economic clout to pressure them, and if that doesn’t work military force. Maritime SEA countries, outside of Singapore, aren’t as dependent on China for trade or investment as those in Mainland SEA. Even Brazil is more economically dependent on trade with China than a country like the Indonesia. Secondly, Maritime SEA suffers from tyranny of distance, China’s can’t conduct air operations from Hainan against major population centers in SEA (ie Luzon, Java etc) or reach the Malacca or Sunda Straits without refueling, now if you have airbases in the SCS you can use your combined military pressure with economic pressure.

Indonesian policy makers have a better understanding of the region’s history than Filipinos do, and it’s because of this understanding they are more prepared to stand up to China. First off, China is a continental power. Countries like the Dutch, US, Britain, Japan are considered maritime powers. Historically for a continental power to invade an island state is equivalent of a fighting over bones when you have finished a 7-course meal. As a result, China’s maritime forays have been half-hearted. China only had a blue water Navy starting from the 12th century (ie the Southern Song Dynasty) and that through to the 13th century under the Mongol (150 years). Then there were Zheng Ho and his treasure fleets, but that lasted only 50 years, because of Internal politics, the treasure ships ended up being destroyed and most official documents of their existence were scrubbed.

The Javanese get the whole tributary system, and play along and suck up to the Chinese, but if the Chinese intrude on their sphere of influence, the gloves go off

Who controls the historical narrative is able to whittle down the resolve of the opponents. The Chinese love to keep reminding people that China was “THE MIDDLE KINGDOM” and other countries were vassal states or tributaries (ie subservient). Unfortunately the Chinese still have a tributary mentality. It is often followed by the line “Asia for the Asians”, and there is this romanticized view that once we kick the outsiders out (the West), everything will be harmonious and peaceful. It is fantasy, precolonial Asia was violent. A tributary system worked in the past because paying tribute meant paying off the Chinese Emperor, not satisfying a nation of 1.3 Billion people. The Chinese Emperor were usually satisfied with trinkets or maybe a beautiful woman, but never anything too demanding. The Javanese get the whole tributary system, and play along and suck up to the Chinese, but if the Chinese intrude on their sphere of influence, the gloves go off.

Throughout much of history, the seas in Asia were dominated by the Arabs, Persians, Indians and most importantly the Austronesians (Javanese, Malays, and Filipinos). Most Austronesian kingdoms including ones in the Philippines were thalassocracies, meaning they ruled largely through controlling the seas. Much of China’s seafaring technology (ie the sea going Chinese junk) was copied [from the Javanese] (http://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/article/2008869/where-did-word-junk-come). The Majapahit had the largest Navy in the world, and recruited sailors from all over the archipelago, even as far as Mindanao. It had five fleets, and one of those fleets was stationed off of Natuna, and it’s one reason why the Indonesian are throwing the kitchen sink at Natuna. Natuna sits on the major invasion route from North Asia that invaders have used in the past (Mongols and the Japanese). It sounds corny, but if you are a Game of Thrones fan, the Austronesian are the Greyjoys of Asia, and unfortunately Filipinos are Theon Greyjoy. Has Duterte set you free, or handed you over to “Ramsey Bolton”

A lot of Philippine’s foreign policy problems lies with poor institutional capability. Since the overthrow of Marcos, Philippines foreign policy has been run mostly by the President or a Foreign Secretary who isn’t a professional diplomat, and it shows.

A lot of Philippine’s foreign policy problems lies with poor institutional capability. Since the overthrow of Marcos, Philippines foreign policy has been run mostly by the President or a Foreign Secretary who isn’t a professional diplomat, and it shows. Because the President is so powerful, basically a foreign policy lives or dies with the President. He owns it. Indonesia can stand up to the Chinese while scoring a win with the Taiwanese, essentially killing two birds with one stone, in part because of its Foreign Ministry. Almost all of Indonesia’s Foreign Ministers were career diplomats or senior academics, and the average tenure of an Indonesian Foreign Minister since 1956 is 8 years. Depending on the President, the Foreign Minister can have a lot of authority. Suharto was a homebody, he only graduated from high school and he couldn’t speak much English, so he had top notch Foreign Ministers and gave them a lot of authority. Philippine’s dealings with both the Chinese and Taiwanese have been disastrous. Duterte may be cunning, but the odds are stacked against him.

Duterte is pro-Chinese and anti-American, but he isn’t pro-Chinese/anti-American enough to sell out the country

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Scarborough is lost, but if the Philippines doesn’t stand up to China, China will keep on pressing with its fishermen militia and the Coast Guard, waging a “People’s War at Sea”, until they are in your 12 miles territorial zone. I think it is better just to “write off” those territories and start on a fresh page. The Philippines need a comprehensive rethink of its foreign and military policy, looking at the failures over the last 25 years. And it shouldn’t be just the President making the decisions. Philippines should look at doubling the defense budget as a % of GDP, bolstering the Navy and Airforce, increasing the size of the Marine Corps, getting missiles etc. It should identify any shoals and islands vulnerable to Chinese takeover, place garrisons on them.

On foreign policy, Philippines should seriously think about abandoning the US defense treaty. If Filipinos aren’t comfortable about going it alone like the Indonesians, it should examine whether joining the Five Power Alliance with Singapore, Malaysia, UK, Australia and New Zealand. is a good idea. This will reassure the US, that no longer pro-US, but still pro-Western. It will tell the Chinese that the Philippines is no longer US appendage, but is still in the Western camp.

If you can’t control the seas, the Chinese will slice you bit by bit, like Ramsey Bolton did with Theon, and the Philippines will be Reek.

(NOTE: this opinion piece originally appears on Reddit; it is being re-posted with permission for entertainment purposes only)


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