With the trade war between the United States and China creating an ever more hostile global environment, there is an unspoken pressure on The Philippines to choose a side. Due to historic ties between The Philippines and the United States, there is naturally a large segment of the old ruling elite who want The Philippines to choose the US side without hesitation while others who want to assert a broader pan-Asian identity would seek to use the trade war to deepen ties with Beijing.
President Rodrigo Duterte has avoided both extremes by remaining committed to neutrality in any hot war as well as in the trade war. While Duterte has worked tirelessly to secure relations with China that President Xi has characterised as a “golden era” between the two countries, there has been a clear push-pull effect which brought this about.
Whilst Ferdinand Marcos was very keen to harness a proper relationship with China’s economy which even in the final years of the Marcos presidency was engaging in historic Reform and Opening Up, subsequent Filipino leaders either ignored or antagonised China in a self-defeating manner that would serve only to cut The Philippines off from the world’s most dynamic economy. As Chinese and Filipino tradesmen had incredibly close relations prior to the Spanish colonial period, it makes all the more sense for The Philippines to be a natural partner to China in a new era of global connectivity.
At the same time, one must remember that by looking to form a win-win respect based partnership with China in 2016, President Duterte was also well aware that the US was being ruled by Barack Obama, a man who sought to antagonise Duterte from the moment he became the leader of The Philippines in July of that year. As such, Duterte needed to open up all possible options in order to not keep all of his country’s eggs in a hostile US basket.
With the emergence of Donald Trump, Philippine-US relations improved in some respects and remained the same in others. Un-elected so-called deep state elements in Washington and much of the US Congress remain openly hostile to Duterte’s distinctly anti-liberal style of government. But at the same time, Donald Trump not only likes Duterte on a personal level but Trump has spoken openly about his strong admiration for many Duterte’s policies.
As a result, relations with the US have stabilised since Obama’s exit from Washington, but Duterte’s commitment to Asian-centred non-alignment remains the key to balancing between a strengthened role of The Philippines in ASEAN, good relations with China and good relations with the United States. At the same time, Duterte has engaged in ever warmer ties with countries as diverse as Japan, India, Russia, Korea and Turkey. All of this has been beneficial to a Philippines that prior to Duterte had a very narrow geopolitical/geo-economic portfolio.
Far from pursuing non-alignment in a sneaky manner, Duterte has been completely open about his policies. Speaking of relations with the US in an age where Duterte has good relations with Donald Trump but poor relations with most others in America, the Philippine leader said the following:
“I like Trump and I would like to assure America that we will not do anything to hinder, hamper or whatever. We are ready to cooperate, but this I have to say: I will not go to war with anybody”.
Duterte then explained that doing business with countries like China and Russia is often less bureaucratic and politicised than doing business with an overly regulated United States. Duterte continued:
“We will go along with our alliances but to me, China and Russia are not enemies because what the Americans failed to deliver, that was the time I went to Russia, only to ask President Xi Jinping to give me a credit line because I have no money.
When we needed in the hour of our need, Russia and China gave it to us practically free. To this day, they have not even asked for even one penny as payment. They have not asked a military alliance. They have not asked for special favours to operate in this country, unlike the Americans.
I’m a Filipino. I have to have a sense of gratitude, at least honour the contract. Nothing else. You do not have to praise China and side with [them against] America”.
Thus, in spite of the trade war, Duterte remains committed to an open policy of positive engagement with all superpowers, regional powers and nearby countries. If a hot war were to break out between China and the US in which The Philippines chose a side, the country would likely be destroyed in the crossfire of both warring parties.
Likewise, if The Philippines were to defy the overall ASEAN trend of neutrality in the trade war (as exemplified by Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia), the country would lose out on opportunities for economic enrichment that are derived from cooperating with multiple partners in multiple areas of shared interests.
By remaining committed to foreign policy non-alignment, Duterte is steadying the ship that is The Philippines in spite of choppy waters in nearby political seas.