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China or US? Philippines Inches Toward a Neutral Foreign Policy

FILE - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte attends a meeting with members of the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Emerging Infectious Diseases in Davao province, southern Philippines, Aug. 17, 2020.
FILE - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte attends a meeting with members of the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Emerging Infectious Diseases in Davao province, southern Philippines, Aug. 17, 2020.

The Philippines, an old U.S. ally and more recent friend of China, is awkwardly bouncing one superpower off the other on its way to a neutral foreign policy that will give the Southeast Asian country benefits from both sides, specialists say.

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin told the Philippine-based ANC News Channel last week “we need the U.S. presence” in Asia. That remark follows years of anti-American thundering by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has also sought friendship with China since he took office in 2016.

Like Asian neighbors such as Indonesia and Vietnam, the strategically located Philippines intends eventually to keep equal relations with both world powers, analysts believe. Asian countries with a neutral stance often get development aid and investment from China along with military support – to resist China -- from the United States.

For that reason, scholars say, officials in Manila make statements that outsiders find conflicting.

“It’s something like, when you say something bad against China you have to compensate it,” said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore's public policy school.

“It’s an ongoing show, I would say, so I would have to take [Locsin’s] pronouncements in that bigger context of this balancing game,” he said.

The impoverished Philippines sees Beijing as a source of investment and development aid despite a decades-old dispute over sovereignty in the South China Sea. Duterte resents U.S. presence in the country.

However, Duterte’s military and much of the Philippine public want the country to keep close ties with the United States, especially as China gets stronger just offshore in waters claimed by Manila.

“Duterte may still be extremely popular with Filipinos, but Beijing decidedly is not,” Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a February study. The Philippine defense community remains “extremely worried,” he added.

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For Washington, the Philippines represents part of a Western Pacific island chain of political allies that work together as needed to stop Chinese maritime expansion. The United States and the Philippines have lived by a mutual defense treaty since 1951.

China hopes strong ties with the Philippines will reduce U.S. clout in the South China Sea dispute, where the People’s Liberation Army has a lead over neighboring states. U.S. officials periodically warn Beijing to leave the South China Sea open for international use. Washington doesn’t claim the sea but periodically sends naval ships over to show that the waterway is still open.

In 2016, China pledged $24 billion in aid and investment to the Philippines.

A neutral foreign policy in the Philippines will come in hot and cold spurts aimed at both superpowers, scholars say.

Duterte said in early August, for example, that he would avoid joining military exercises with the United States in the sea that his government disputes with China. In July and August, though, the Philippine navy participated in the multicountry Rim of the Pacific exercises that the U.S. government hosts every two years.

Duterte notified Washington in February of his intention to terminate the 21-year-old Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States, a pact that lets U.S. troops fluidly move in and out of the Philippines. Manila suspended that plan in June.

The Philippines should eventually formulate a “more dignified” foreign policy so China and the United States know what to expect, said Enrico Cau, Southeast Asia specialist with the Taiwan Strategy Research Association.

Manila need not worry about losing the support of either side, he said. China wants stronger relations in Southeast Asia, he said, while the U.S. hopes to keep its military toehold. Neither superpower has cut ties with a smaller country over strong ties with the other.

“You take just an equidistant standing, which is constant, and that actually improves relations with everybody – also allows China and the United States to know what to expect,” Cau said.

A cementing of foreign policy will wait until after the U.S. presidential election in November, said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Metro Manila-based advocacy group Institute for Political and Electoral Reform. The Philippines is not “moving in either direction” today, he said.

Incumbent U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has stepped up military support for the five Asian governments that oppose Beijing’s expansion in the South China Sea over the past decade. It’s unclear whether challenger Joe Biden would continue that direction.