On the Philippines’ recent split with the Americans: Nationalism or Realpolitik?

President Rodrigo Duterte and US Secretary of State John Kerry during a courtesy call at the Malacañang Palace on 27 July 2016 I Photo: King Rodriguez/PPD

From the outset, Philippines’ recent abandonment of the United States for China seems like an act of realism based on economic pursuit. After all, one of the reasons why Duterte was able to win the national elections so decisively was because he promised development and growth. In the recent past, Philippines’ rural areas have failed to keep up with the city centers. As the Economist suggests, Philippines’ business-process-outsourcing (BPO) has failed to trickle down, as nearly a third of all Filipinos still live with less than $3.10 per day.[1] Development, however, requires capital, and that can no longer be expected from Philippines’ former Western allies who has been shying away from international responsibilities. But China, on the other hand, has been funneling cash to various regions setting up partnerships; in December 2015, China’s free trade agreement with Korea reduced tariffs for the first time, and early this year, their trade agreement with Australia undertook the same measures.[2] Duterte’s shift in attitude towards China suggests his aim for Philippines to take part in a bilateral trade agreement as well, as China has already promised billions in loans and investments in response to his trip to Beijing.

Despite economic motivations, however, the significance in Philippines’ alliance with China can hardly be understated. Early this June, Philippines’ former President Benigno Aquino III filed a complaint to the Hague against China’s blockade in Scarborough Shoal, due to their dispute over sovereignty in the South China Sea. Mr. Aquino’s complains were not unfound, for China has been taking aggressive measures on the seas over the past two years. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Beijing has reclaimed more than 2,900 acres of islands since December 2013, more than all other claimants combined in the last forty years.[3] Satellite imagery has shown unprecedented activity of China on the Subi Reef and the Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys, that is, the construction of artificial platforms, including helipads, airstrips, piers, radars, and other surveillance structures.[4] The problem with these constructions is that the Spratlys are also claimed by Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan.[5] Duterte’s willingness to relieve tension with China, therefore, is confronted with serious difficulties. How is he going to answer the question of the South China Sea? One must wonder, how much longer can he avoid discussing the issue of sovereignty?

On a side note, one must also consider whether Duterte’s cooperation with China necessitates his split with the United States. After all, why can’t Duterte align himself with both powers at the same time? As a member of the so-called “free world”, when was the last time South Korea publicly denounced China by siding with the Americans? If the Europeans thought that cooperation with Washington necessitated an opposition against Beijing’s aggressiveness, why hasn’t the Hague taken any actual measures upon Mr. Obama’s warning to the Chinese on the South China Sea dispute? Undoubtedly, the international situation is very different today than it was 50 years ago. Every country that finds itself in the middle of a disagreement between China and the United States is in an awkward position, for no country thinks that an alliance with either is attractive enough to reject the other. This explains why the only countries who ever confronted China in any issue over the recent past were countries whose national interests were directly at stake, such as the likes of the Philippines and Japan over their sovereign claims in the South China Sea.

Perhaps, therefore, Duterte’s decision to split with the Americans is a result of nationalism. As previously evinced, Philippines’ cooperation with China and her split with the United States are not mutually exclusive. Yet this only implies that there is an additional force outside the realms of material utilitarianism at work. If one takes into account of Philippines’ history with the United States over the past 100 years, an obvious possibility would be the revival of Filipino nationalism, that is, the vibrant sentiments of the “nation state”.

It must be noted that Filipino nationalism existed for as long as the fate of the region was decided by foreign interventions. At the beginning, the Philippines was under Spanish rule. When the Americans defeated the Spanish in the Spanish American War, the long-standing colony of the Philippines was turned over to the United States. Under the considerations of opening the Asian market, the Philippines’ inability to self-rule, and the possibility of annexation by other powers, the Americans decided to take charge of the Philippines until it was granted independence in 1946. Though the Philippine-American War in 1899 ended in America’s favor, resentments among Filipino inhabitants persisted. Nevertheless, these feelings were overshadowed by the spirit of the Cold War. When the Philippines remained as one of America’s primary sites for naval establishments in the Asian front, there is evidence to believe that Duterte’s recent comments about America entails his nationalist aspirations. Early this fall, Duterte called for the removal of all foreign troops from the Philippines, possibly within the next two years. This was obviously targeted at the United States, since the Subic Bay base was reopened in 2015 to station the American navy. Duterte even concedes that he “may have ruffled the feelings of some but that is how is. We will survive, without the assistance of American, maybe a lesser quality of life, but as I said, we will survive.”[6]

Overall, Duterte’s recent actions appear to be a mixture of nationalism and “realpolitik”. His realpolitik consists in his ability to observe opportunities which would bring the Philippines a material prosperity. Yet it is clear that he will not take advantage of every one of those opportunities when he conceded the possibility of having a less desirable material condition in the removal of the American navy. This is precisely why not all of Duterte’s foreign policies can be described as realpolitik, for his nationalist sentiments has, in a way, established certain moral fundamentals. In his rejection of American influence, he implicitly suggests that despite his unruliness in his war on drugs or any verbal abuse of foreign leaders, there are certain fine lines that cannot be crossed regardless of material outcomes. Evidently, this would include a closer relationship with the United States, which can only be explained in context of the Filipino history.

The content of this article does not represent the positions, research methods, or opinions of the Synergy Editorial Committee. We are solely responsible for reviewing and editing submissions. Please address all scholarly concerns directly to the contributor(s) of the article.

Jeff Wang is a 4th Year student studying Political Science at the University of Toronto.

[1] A guide to the Philippines’ history, economy and politics in “the Economist”, May 6th 2016, 15:30 by the Data Team: http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2016/05/daily-chart-5

[2] China-ROK, China-Australia FTA to take effect on December 20 in “China FTA Network”, 2015-12-11 09:04:14: http://fta.mofcom.gov.cn/enarticle/enkorea/enkoreanews/201601/30417_1.html

[3] China’s Maritime Disputes by “Council on Foreign Relations”, 11 Dec. 2016: http://www.cfr.org/asia-and-pacific/chinas-maritime-disputes/p31345#!/p31345

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Philippine president calls for removal of all US troops by Justin McCurry, in “the Guardian”, 26 October 2016: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/26/philippine-president-calls-for-removal-of-all-us-troops

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