Two of the most controversial foreign policy stances of the administration of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte involve the nation’s human rights and territorial integrity. The former issue highlights the president’s firm defiance against Western condemnation on human rights violations in the country, while the latter underscores his meek accommodation of China’s influence in the South China Sea. Two different approaches both emphasizing one important theme concerning the country’s sovereignty.
Since the start of his presidency, Duterte has denounced the West for its criticisms against his “war on drugs” that allegedly involves extra-judicial killings. Justifying his anti-narcotics campaign, he strongly asserted the “principle of non-intervention in internal affairs.” He demanded full respect of the country’s sovereignty and right to determine the best approach to eliminate drugs. These assertions have led to Duterte’s verbal retaliations against the US, the European Union, and the United Nations, which he largely viewed as imperialist bullies imposing on their norms and values on a sovereign nation.
His disdain for such “foreign interference” has led to his decision to from the International Criminal Court (ICC) last March. The pull out was prompted by announcements of a preliminary examination into accusations that the president and his officials had committed crimes against humanity during the war on drugs in the country. Duterte evidently took offense and cited the “baseless, unprecedented and outrageous attacks on my person as against my administration” as the reason for his action. This was widely construed as a personal reprisal resulting in the Philippines’ official withdrawal from the ICC.
In contrast to his passionate stance against Western meddling on domestic affairs, Duterte is largely viewed as having a passive attitude towards Chinese intrusions within Philippine maritime territory. He has consistently downplayed the Philippines’ arbitration victory in 2016 and kept a muted tone against Chinese illicit activities. This further emboldened China to push the boundaries in the disputed waters. Recent reports have revealed that China has installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems in Zamora (Subi) Reef, landed bomber and military planes on Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, and erected a monument on Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef. Such illegal actions were located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea, also known as West Philippine Sea.
Duterte’s lack of forceful and sustained resistance against Chinese intrusions is generally viewed as a concessional approach to gain financial benefits. In his view, it is better for the Philippines to gain as much economic concessions as possible, rather than push for its maritime claims that will not be permanently resolved. By focusing on the immediate developmental needs of the country and shelving the maritime disputes, can be considered an opportunistic tactic that reflects his pragmatic, rational, and calculating mindset. According to him: “We have so many problems domestic to take care of before we start to venture into some sort of aggressive stand.” This essentially highlights Duterte’s perception that the Philippines is better off standing in the good graces of a powerful China and profit from it, rather than be the target of its wrath.
Both issues can also be linked to Duterte’s contentious “independent foreign policy,” which was originally intended to move the Philippines away from its dependence on the US. This explains his abhorrence against Western meddling and his accommodation of China’s influence. However, Duterte’s interpretation of “independence” seems to underscore defiance against the US and all the imperialist baggage it stands for, rather than project a strong, neutral, and principled stance that will uphold the country’s sovereignty.
Expectations are high on his government to avoid any unwarranted actions, diplomatic blunders, and policy miscalculations in the future, which may compromise broader national interests.
Thus, the contradictions of Duterte’s foreign policy are not surprising. In the same manner that he has brazenly defended his anti-drug crusade, Duterte is expected to aggressively push for the country’s maritime and territorial rights. But while he is hardnosed about his war on drugs, Duterte is soft-pedalling on the frequent foreign incursions at sea. Such irony also reveals his emotional response against Western condemnation on human rights violations on the one hand, and his logical approach in relation to Chinese security threats and economic largesse on the other.
As a consequence of Duterte’s conflicting policy stance, the Philippines suffers from a diminished credibility in the international community. By continuing with his war on drugs, Duterte has managed to demean the value of human rights that the nation has always espoused. His decision to leave the ICC has also cast doubt on the Philippines’ democratic credentials. Meanwhile, Duterte’s policy adjustments in the Philippines’ relations with China have caused confusion among countries in the region. From a previously confrontational stance taken by former president Benigno Aquino III, Duterte is redirecting the bilateral relations towards the opposite end, which characterizes a more accommodating, almost subservient, approach.
As he downplays the country’s heard-earned arbitration victory, the Philippines is inadvertently wasting an important opportunity to strengthen its strategic leverage against China. And without the Philippines at the forefront, other claimant states may perhaps be disinclined to pursue a multilateral and rules-based approach to defend their maritime and territorial rights. As a result, these countries are exploring their own strategies to cope with China’s creeping aggressions.
Meanwhile, the Filipino public has also adversely reacted to Duterte’s incongruous foreign policy. His renunciation of the Philippines’ membership from the ICC to protest Western interference has left Filipinos fearful of Duterte’s authoritarian and capricious tendencies, mainly because his decision is widely seen as a personal retaliation against the court. His perceived subservience towards the Chinese has also produced growing concerns among Filipinos of a “sell out” of the country’s territorial sovereignty, especially since China’s financial promises have not yet translated into tangible benefits for the Philippines’ economic development. There is mounting pressure from maritime experts, foreign policy analysts, and opposition groups demanding that the Duterte administration take a more visible and determined move against Chinese incursions. There is also an escalating anxiety among the Filipino due to China’s continued island construction and military build-up, despite the revitalized relations with the Chinese government and notwithstanding Duterte’s assurances that his administration is doing everything to protect the country’s maritime territories.
Given the paradox of Duterte’s foreign policy, the country may unfortunately have to contend with the consequences of his decisions. The challenge for the Philippines, particularly its established institutions, is to cope with Duterte’s policy contradictions while maintaining a credible international reputation. Unfortunately, to put a check on Duterte’s pronouncements and actions based on personal impulses and preferences is difficult, especially since the Philippine president is regarded as the chief architect of the country’s foreign policy.
It is hoped that the remaining years of the Duterte administration will not be spent on retaliation against international institutions nor acquiescence towards an imposing power. Expectations are high on his government to avoid any unwarranted actions, diplomatic blunders, and policy miscalculations in the future, which may compromise broader national interests. Although President Duterte is not the Philippine state, it will take major efforts to undo the decisions and reverse the policies he made on behalf of the country long after he is gone. This is the reason why a judicious and consistent Philippine foreign policy under Duterte is an urgent call, one that is grounded on an appropriate defense of the country’s sovereignty.