Some US and Japanese media recently claimed that they cannot understand the diplomatic policies of new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. He criticized the US ambassador to Manila and publicly warned he does not care to cut diplomatic ties with Washington. Yet on the other hand, he also said that the US is the Philippines’ only treaty ally and the two has solid alliance. Recently Duterte told visiting Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida that he is willing to develop security cooperation with Japan. But soon after that, he said that “We maintain a good relation with everybody. China does not come in second. They are all first to us.” It seems that Duterte’s foreign policy is quite unpredictable.
After President Duterte’s inauguration as President of The Philippines on Thursday, June 30, 2016, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua was one of the first diplomats to congratulate him.
As a matter of fact, it is not that hard to understand his diplomacy. Duterte pursues independence and wants to get rid of controls by other countries. He takes Philippine national interests as the priority.
To some extent, after Manila gained an advantage from the illegal award announced by the Permanent Court of Arbitration over the South China Sea dispute, it started to do soul-searching on its foreign policies. Both Washington and Tokyo have been hoping that Duterte can firmly pick their side over the South China Sea issue. But when the heat of the disputes over Huangyan Island was rising, neither the US nor Japan supported Manila with real actions.
Back then, after taking every order from the US, former Philippine president Benigno Aquino III created confrontation between Manila and Beijing, which crippled the economic and trade cooperation between the two, while the Philippines still suffers from extremely poor domestic infrastructure.
In this regard, the meeting between former Philippine leader Fidel Ramos and former Chinese vice foreign minister Fu Ying earlier this month was a good start. Both sides agreed that the two nations share common interests in marine environmental protection, fishery cooperation, anti-crime campaigns, tourism, trade and investment.
In the history of the Philippines, it has a tradition of fighting against the ruling and pressure from the outside world in pursuit of independent diplomacy. During the 300 years since the country was turned into a Spanish colony in 1565, there were a total of 102 major uprisings against colonization. The First Philippine Republic was established in 1899, yet later became a US colony after being defeated in the Philippine-American War. Nevertheless, the Philippines’ struggle never stopped and had made the US pay a heavy price. After WWII, Washington had no other choice but to return independence to the nation. And this piece of history has become a part of the Philippine legacy of fighting against US interference in its own foreign policies.
Of course, it is still hard for Manila to achieve completely independent diplomacy. Some figures in the nation, represented by Aquino III, are still calling for countering China by depending on Washington and Tokyo.
They insist on considering the South China Sea arbitration award as the precondition of negotiations with Beijing. Apart from that, the US-Philippine alliance is still solid. Washington still has significant influence on the Philippines’ politics, economy, military and even cultures.
However, being tough and pragmatic, Duterte may shake off control from the US and Japan to some extent, which is also not unprecedented in the country’s history.
Duterte said that “China does not come in second.” His unspoken words are that there is no first place in his independent foreign policies. Only by developing friendly ties with all of its neighboring countries can Philippine national interests be served.
The author is associate professor at the School of International Studies, Sun Yat-sen University. firstname.lastname@example.org Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion
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