In a new global environment, centered on a multipolar world order, the Philippines offers a unique perspective for understanding the changes occurring in international relations.
With the victory of Rodrigo Duterte in May 2016, many anticipated a major change in Manila's relations with such countries as the United States and China. The Philippines has always enjoyed a privileged role in the containment strategy directed by Washington against the People's Republic of China. Since the very beginning of Duterte’s presidency, and especially during Obama's final months in office, Duterte displayed his disappointment with the United States’ use of the Philippines as a bulwark against Chinese expansion in the region. Such a role is something that a pragmatic leader like Duterte, with the interests of his nation at heart, would never accept to adopt.
Duterte’s first diplomatic visits and statements confirmed this direction, with blunt words confirming his intentions to widen cooperation and alliances with the major countries of China and Russia, as demonstrated during Duterte's visit to Beijing and Moscow.
In the months that followed, with Trump as the new occupant of the White House, Duterte greatly softened his rhetoric and moves against the United States, sensing some sort of natural affinity with Trump. Although Duterte has repeatedly shown an aversion to the imperialist policies of the American colonial masters, he seems to have a high regard for strongmen like Putin, Xi and, of course, Donald Trump, among whose company he includes himself.
Trump's victory in the 2016 election has created a common ground with Duterte: both oppose their internal establishment and have a tough way of getting along with their political enemies. Besides this, Trump is much less interested in pursuing Obama's 'Asian Pivot', a policy based on the containment of China through economic and military pressure from US allies in the region like the Philippines. Trumps looks more interested in using existing trade between the US and China as a means of harassing Beijing.
One of the main events that appears to have shaken the Duterte presidency, in addition to the internal political struggles and pressure from opposing political parties, is the terrorist attacks and clashes with Daesh in the city of Marawi on the island of Mindanao. What was meant to be a rapid operation to liberate the city from Daesh is turning out to be an urban counter-guerrilla operation with an unknown end date.
With internal pressure building up against Duterte, both from within his party and from the opposition, stemming from the difficult relationship with Washington, the North Korean crisis seems like the perfect opportunity to ease relations with Washington and seize the opportunity to silence his domestic critics.
Manila, being marginally involved in this crisis, has allowed Duterte, showing brilliant intuition, to seize this opportunity to criticize Kim Jong-un (without risking a worsening of the overall situation with the DPRK), openly supporting Donald Trump's policy as well as Beijing's diplomatic efforts. It is a win-win situation for Duterte, at once placating internal critics, following Beijing's lead, and giving credit to Trump.
Duterte seems to have realized that rather than a firm stance against Washington, a disinterested dialogue may be the best option for alleviating internal criticism by US-influenced lobbies within the Philippine establishment.
The good news for Trump's strategic planners ends here. In addition to purchases of arms from Russia, still unclear in terms of quantity but certainly imminent, Manila and Beijing have begun a slow but inexorable rapprochement. In recent months, the discussions surrounding the Scarborough Shoal have progressed from rhetoric involving threats to cooperation and dialogue. The situation has shifted from a possible war to a major agreement summed up by the Foreign Minister of Manila, Delfin Lorenzana, thusly: «The Chinese will not occupy new features in the South China Sea nor will they build structures in Scarborough Shoal».
This statement, agreed on with Beijing, is the basis of a new conception of the multipolar world order that heavily relies on a respect for international relations. Fair negotiations grounded on common interests shared by all parties involved are what unite different countries. It represents a striking difference to the old unipolar world order where military force and power is imposed by Washington on practically every other state. Manila has every interest in developing a new and fruitful dialogue with Beijing, hoping to solve all controversies related to contested areas. The impetus for such talks seems to be economic.
The areas disputed by China and the Philippines in the South China Sea, besides being important for geostrategic reasons, contain considerable reserves of natural resources. What appears to be on the cards is an agreement between Manila and the Philippines to jointly explore territories that are undisputed by the Philippine oil and gas firm PXP Energy Corp and the China National Offshore Oil Corp. Revenues are to be divided to the effect of «60% to Manila and 40% to Beijing in any areas under the control of the Philippines authorities.”
This clarification from Alan Peter Cayetano, Secretary of Foreign Affairs, seems to have every intention of preventing internal criticism coming from politicians and entrepreneurs opposed to any collaboration or de-escalation with Beijing. Critics are using harsh rhetoric, as seen with minority lawmakers Gary Alejano and Edcel Lagman, who are opposed to the energy plan, saying it would be illegal: «This is contrary to our Constitution because these areas should be exclusively for the Filipinos,» Lagman said.
Despite the misgivings of Duterte's opponents, joint explorations are a starting point for re-establishing relations between the two countries, and seem to be a sensible choice with potential economic benefits for both countries. As explained by an administration official who prefers to remain anonymous: «What we are looking at is a deal that will first cover exploration activities in uncontested areas, areas closer to the Philippines, including Recto Bank».
Manila does not possess the technological capacity to carry out such explorations on its own, and for Beijing this strengthens its position in the South China Sea vis-a-vis other disputing countries in the region. Joint explorations highlight the benefits that arise from mutually beneficial economic cooperation with China. Overcoming tensions and conflict while making money looks like an offer too good for any country in the region to refuse. It is easy to deduce that this an asymmetrical response from Beijing in response to the American attempt to increase tensions in the region, such as with the recent appearance of Daesh on the Philippine peninsula, or with the DPRK issue.
The scope of projects between Manila and Beijing seem to indicate a clear path ahead. Using the joint exploration of important energy resources, and creating new investment projects, it looks like a clever way to create economic and political conditions for tackling more pressing issues like disputed territorial areas. Normally these diplomatic negotiations are unsuccessful and often inconclusive, since both factions are unable to make concessions to their opponents, having nothing to gain and everything to lose.
Manila and Beijing are using a common approach to reach an agreement over disputed territories, with economic plans to jointly exploit the many resources in the area being an incentive to pursue negotiations. With the alternative to cooperation, prosperity and dialogue being hostility, with the possibility of war, there is no other choice other than to cooperate to smooth out their differences.
In observing mandarin diplomacy, one will see that this is Beijing's primary strategic approach to all sorts of matters. The Belt and Road Initiative is the ultimate expression of this approach, complemented by a series of infrastructure investments in countries involved in the project that will significantly improve living conditions of their citizens.
Besides joint explorations, Beijing's infrastructure projects in the Philippines also seem to be heading in this direction. Without being naive, Manila also understands that the more China becomes important to the Philippine economy, the more leverage Beijing has over its strategic decisions. These projects all look good for their economic revenues, but China also has a broader objective, namely safeguarding its interests in what it defines as its own “backyard», referring to the South China Sea.
Duterte seems to have understood, probably better than any other leader of the multipolar international order, the opportunity to counterbalance American influence in the region through Chinese investments. In addition, asking Moscow for some help in tackling the Mindanao terror crisis could be crucial in the future. All these factors seem to have greatly strengthened Duterte’s position and that of Manila on the Asian chessboard, granting a degree of independence that has not been enjoyed over the past decade in the Philippines.