Today, the United States will conduct its largest military exercises with The Philippines since President Rodrigo Duterte was elected in the summer of 2016. However, days before, Duterte delivered a speech in his home city of Davao where he stated that in the long term, China and Russia are more steadfast and more reliable security partners for The Philippines than the US. Duterte recounted his conversations with Chinese authorities, saying:
“China said, ‘We will protect you. We will not allow the Philippines to be destroyed. We are just here and you can call for our help anytime”.
While the Philippine President stated that because of legal treaty obligations with the US, he cannot sign a defensive treaty with Beijing or Moscow, when it comes to taking concrete measures to helping The Philippines in a time of need, the following is true,
“So to this day, China and Russia has not asked me for a single piece of paper or pencil in return. And I told them that I’m not ready to enter into military alliances because we have this pact with the US. If I have a treaty with them, I cannot enter into other treaties.
…If America helps us, which I doubt, they have missiles. But foot soldiers? America is allergic to that. They have lost so many wars … She’s not going to protect us.
…When you talk to China or Russia, they keep their word, ‘We will be there.’ This America, this Italy … They are afraid to die”.
While it may seem contradictory for Duterte to praise China and Russia days before a joint military drill with America, in reality, Duterte has mastered the art of win-win multipolarity in an age when far too many commentators remain stuck in a regressive zero-sum mindset. President Duterte has adopted a policy of geopolitical neutrality in which he has publicly stated that The Philippines will not participate in the wars that are declared by and/or fought in the interests of other powers, whether large or small powers.
To this end, Duterte has engaged in a cooperative initiative to mutually exploit South China Sea resources with China, while he remains equally committed to avoiding participating in any pro-US provocations in the region. But instead of dumping existing treaties with the US in order to engage in new treaties with other superpowers, Duterte has instead opted to allow existing rights and obligations relating to the US to run their course all the while establishing positive security arrangements for the future with countries like China and Russia.
In doing so, Duterte has taken his country from one which was traditionally taken for granted by Washington and largely ignored by Beijing and Moscow, except for moments when Duterte’s predecessors challenged Beijing over the South China Sea from a position of humiliation and has transformed The Philippines into a country where all three of the superpowers are now competing for various cooperative initiatives in The Philippines.
In an age of multi-polarity, many important large and medium sized states are finding that rather than tying themselves into a single alliance or system of alliances, it is more beneficial to build important ties with a plethora of regional partners, all the while engaging in healthy relations on a case-by-case basis with all of the three superpowers. In spite of Turkey’s currently fraught relationship with the United States and its new security partnerships and trading partnerships with Russia, as well as intense engagement in China’s One Belt–One Road, Turkey remains a member of NATO. As such, Turkey is looking to purchase Russia’s new S-400 missile defence systems as well as America’s new F-35 fighter jets. The balancing act is at times difficult, but when embarked upon from a position of strength, something which clearly defines both Turkey’s President Erdogan and President Duterte, such acts of balance are not only possible but preferable to more constricting alternatives.
Likewise, Pakistan has officially declared a position of neutrality in any wider regional or global conflicts while Islamabad looks to build on its all-weather relationship with countries like China and Turkey, while at the same time restoring good relations with Iran, building a new strategic partnership with Russia and engaging in diplomacy with the US in spite of recent threats from Washington.
It is this model of looking ‘both ways’ diplomatically while implementing the ‘both ways’ model to ultimately safeguard one’s national interest that is the only realistic productive model for enhanced security and rapid development for large and medium sized nations in a multi-polar world.
More than any current leader of an ASEAN state, President Rodrigo Duterte understands that the only way to improve the safety and prosperity of the country is by forging partnerships not based on outdated ideological concepts of alliances but on looking to see which partner nation serves the interests of the Philippines based on a specific need or goal at a specific time.
In this sense, Duterte is getting the best deals for the country by courting a variety of partners, while being subservient to none.