Not since Rizal has The Philippines produced a major national figure who prioritises internal development over aligning with one or multiple external powers as is the case in respect of President Rodrigo Duterte. As such, Duterte cannot be said to be for or against China nor the United States but instead he continues to seek pragmatic foreign relations based on expanding trade, procuring investment and protecting the internal security of The Philippines against narco-terrorism, religious terrorism and far-left terrorism.
Because of this, Duterte has sent shockwaves through western countries and the US in particular because as an Asian leader, Duterte naturally finds more commonality with fellow Asian leaders than with western ones. This includes Chinese, Japanese, Korean and fellow ASEAN states. This itself is in indication of a new era in which The Philippines is not choosing proverbial sides in Asia nor in the wider world.
It is in fact Duterte’s foreign policy shifts away from a formerly sheepish pro-western position that has incurred the ire of certain western governments that now seek to bully and harass The Philippines as a result of Duterte’s global non-alignment. All the while such duplicitous critics of Duterte invoke so-called concerns about Duterte’s pro-law and order positions as cover for their true motivation in seeking to defame Duterte.
Now that the US has withdrawn from the Cold War era INF treaty which prohibited the deployment of intermediate range nuclear missiles, east Asian countries will soon be faced with a question of whether or not to house American nuclear weapons. Duterte has made it perfectly clear that The Philippines will never house such weapons whilst he also cautioned nearby countries against hosting a foreign nuclear arsenal. Duterte stated:
“You cannot place nuclear arms in the Philippines. That will never happen because I will not allow it. I will never allow any foreign troops [here] I don’t want to fight China. If you go to war and China would release all its nuclear missiles, and America and Russia and Britain and Italy and France, this will mean the end of all of us”.
Far from being surprising, these statements fit in perfectly with Duterte’s well established policy of foreign policy non-alignment in pursuit of win-win relations with as many foreign countries as possible.
Some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century were caused by the phenomenon of bilateral and multilateral military alliances. It was the phenomenon of entangling military alliances between the large European empires that transformed what would have otherwise been a small conflict in Europe’s under-developed Balkan region into the First World War. Likewise, military “alliances” formed under the pressures of colonialism did not help to serve those dominated by a foreign master either. During the Second World War, the British completely abandoned Singapore to aggressive Japanese troupes, thus resulting in the brutal Japanese occupation of Singapore and Malaya. In The Philippines, when American officers effectively abandoned the country to Japan in 1942, only to return two years later, many Filipinos as well as some US officers felt that the government in Washington had shown its true colours by placing the safety of top ranking US officers above that of Filipinos who fought beside the American soldiers against the Japanese.
During the Cold War, South Vietnam was abandoned to its fate by the Americans, Afghanistan was similarly abandoned by the Soviets, Cambodia was betrayed by just about every major superpower at various stages of the Cold War, whilst multiple post-independence civil wars haunted Africa because rival internal factions in multiple African states were competing to ally with various conflicting military superpowers.
For an country like The Philippines in particular, less than nothing would be gained by reviving a full scale military alliance with the US, let alone forming one with China or Russia. This is the case because there is no danger posed to The Philippines by any foreign state military. Like most nations on the planet, the most worrying threats to The Philippines are all non-state threats including that from narco-terrorists, religious extremist terrorists (Abu Sayyaf) and far left terrorists (NPA). To fight such groups, one does not require an entangling formal military alliance with any other country, but instead one requires weapons, intelligence information and in some instances special training from multiple foreign partners. What The Philippines does not need is boots on the ground from any foreign army that would only agitate the terrorists further and thus serve the opposite purpose of the intention behind such an act. The key to fighting terror is keeping the conflict localised. Terrorist groups thrive when local conflicts becoming internationalised as was recently the case in Syria.
Furthermore, the idea that somehow China poses a military threat to The Philippines is as absurd as saying that The Philippines is uniquely threatened by an invasion of space aliens. Under President Duterte’s system of working with China to mutually explore and exploit resources in the South China Sea, Beijing looks to The Philippines as a partner nation with whom any lingering disputes can and will be resolved through mature dialogue. China has not been at war with any nation since early 1979 and there is no foreseeable change to this doctrine of peace through prosperity that is on the Chinese agenda.
But while China is not an enemy but a friend, China also seeks only trading partnerships rather than military ones. One of the reasons that the Chinese superpower has been able to avoid war for the last forty years is due to the fact that China has forsook any entangling military alliances whilst likewise abandoning the Cold War mentality. Russia has largely done the same since the end of the Cold War, thus transforming Moscow from a state with a partly ideological foreign policy to one that operates on a more pragmatic foreign policy basis.
As a result, neither China nor Russia seek Cold War style military allies and more importantly, even if they did, President Duterte has confirmed that he does not want a binding military alliance with any superpower – not the USA, not China and not Russia. Duterte clearly knows that if the neo-Cold War rivalry between the US on the one hand and China and Russia on the other were to turn hot, the first countries to be destroyed would be the developing nations which jumped to formally take a side in such a dispute. As such, Duterte has firmly rejected The Philippines taking any such sides in a geopolitical conflict that could only bring harm to The Philippines, should The Philippines be involved at any level.
These long standing policies of geo-strategic neutrality were affirmed by President Duterte in the following way during a public speech:
“I tell you, until now, Russia and China have not asked for anything, not even for paper or pencil. They did not ask ‘May we build a base there’? All that they requested for so far is to show their ships, ‘Look at our ships, mayor. They’re beautiful. We will just park here for a while.’ Everyone is passing anyway. That’s goodwill. That’s the truth.
No military alliances. Nothing. I will not agree to it”.
“I don’t want any alliance with anyone even with the Americans. Because if you’re bound to them, they can order you around”.
Duterte later re-affirmed that buying weapons from China and Russia has been easier than dealing with the US or Canada but that in spite of this, The Philippines wants no formal military alliance with any foreign power.
These policies have not only achieved true sovereignty for The Philippines and have enabled the country to shop for anti-terror weapons in a truly global market, but such policies have also won The Philippines respect from all three of the military superpowers. Duterte’s strong and straightforward approach to geopolitical affairs has won praise from Donald Trump in spite of a liberal dominated US Congress, Russia has offered free anti-terror weapons to The Philippines as a result of Duterte’s global minded non-aligned policies and China has just invited President Duterte to the prestigious Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in April as a result of what President Xi Jinping called a “golden era” of bilateral relations.
By forsaking the old fashioned mentality which yearns for iron clad military alliances and by embracing an independent minded non-aligned geopolitical position, Duterte has ushered in an age in which The Philippines remains on good terms with all, while being subservient to none. This is the correct way forward for any developing country and especially one with the history, geography and destiny of The Philippines.