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Commentary: Understanding Duterte administration’s appeasement policy on China

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a signing ceremony in Beijing, China, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016. AP/Ng Han Guan, Pool

When confronted by a major external security challenge, a state may align itself with other states against the potential threat or join the bandwagon of the emergent power to secure economic gains or expand their influence. As a foreign policy strategy, balancing refers to efforts by a state to prevent a (revisionist) state from increasing its share of power and upsetting the status quo.  

A policy of appeasement, on the other hand, involves efforts by a leader of a status quo power to conciliate or “buy off” a potential revisionist power by making unilateral diplomatic and strategic concessions. As a foreign policy strategy, appeasement often overlaps with engagement or accommodation and “bandwagoning.”

Engagement refers to efforts by states to enhance exchanges and contracts by way of positive and non-coercive means. Bandwagoning occurs when a state chooses to align its policies with the strongest or most threatening state.

President Rodrigo Duterte has adopted a policy of appeasement on China. This policy has it roots during his campaign for the presidency which he won because of the Aquino administration’s failure to implement a substantial reform agenda. Interestingly, his economic agenda stresses the neo-liberal agenda of macroeconomic stability, fiscal restraint, market-oriented reforms, easing restriction on foreign investments and most importantly, infrastructure development to promote agricultural productivity and industrialization.

Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a joint communique and signed memorandums of cooperation in 13 areas, including economics and trade, investment, financing, and construction of infrastructure. Accordingly, the total amount of money committed by China amounted to US $13.5 billion, of which US $9 billion was allocated for infrastructure development in the Philippines.

Appeasement in action

Despite the Philippines’ legal triumph in the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), the Duterte administration responded with muted caution, not flaunting victory and mindful of taunting China. Although the public was overwhelmingly positive and jubilant, then Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay merely said that he welcomed the ruling and called on the Filipinos to exercise restraint and sobriety. 

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READ: The verdict: Philippines wins arbitration case vs China

During the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Laos, he withdrew the country’s motion to include the PCA decision in the ASEAN Joint Communique after Cambodia’s objection. Former president Fidel Ramos, as special envoy to China, suggested that the PCA award be set aside as the Duterte administration pursues bilateral negotiations with China.

Duterte effected his rebalancing of Philippine foreign policy away from the country’s traditional ally, the US, to China to generate a windfall of economic assistance for the development of the country’s infrastructure. On Sept. 12, 2016, Duterte suddenly announced that US Special Operations Forces in Mindanao must leave the country arguing that there can be no peace in the southern island as long as American troops are operating there. 

The following day, he terminated joint patrols with the US Navy in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone to avoid provoking China. Accordingly, rather than worrying about the South China Sea, Duterte admonished the military to focus on the war on drugs and insurgency. 

The president’s foreign policy agenda involves developing and maintaining an independent and pro-active posture so he can adroitly balance the major powers in East Asia and create a more conducive atmosphere with China eyeing opportunities for major investments. During their first meeting, President Xi Jinping advised Duterte about the need to promote practical bilateral cooperation and that they must thoroughly coordinate their development strategies within the framework of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative. 

READ: Where is China's One Belt, One Road Initiative headed? 

Reaping the fruits of appeasement?

Duterte’s recent efforts and statements aimed to appease China is based on the calculation of gaining rewards in the form of billions of US dollars in deals in agricultural exports and loans for infrastructure projects through the OBOR initiative. The president and his Cabinet believe that OBOR can provide the necessary capital for the Philippines to improve its infrastructure and connectivity, and thus provide the international context for the infrastructure plan of the Duterte administration. They accepted without question Beijing’s official line that China’s surplus capital and rich experience in infrastructure construction can assist developing countries, like the Philippines, in their infrastructure development.

The Duterte administration blames the country’s poor infrastructure as the main culprit for underdevelopment and sees “Build Build Build” as the flagship solution to create employment, vitalize the regions, and reduce inequality and poverty. From this perspective, the Philippines will benefit from the US$1 trillion OBOR initiative, particularly in the revival of the maritime silk route, as it dovetails with the Philippine government’s massive nationwide infrastructure build-up. Accordingly, the Duterte administration’s current economic strategy of sustained economic and inclusive economic growth is anchored on an unprecedented infrastructure program that will require P8.4 trillion (estimated US$17 billion) over the next five years. 

Why appeasement?

Given this prospective economic windfall, the current administration believes that its appeasement policy toward China is worth pursuing because it makes the country a beneficiary of the OBOR initiative. However, the Duterte administration is becoming complicit to China’s long-term strategy to push the US out of the East Asia as it builds a maritime great wall in the South and East China Seas. 

This will surely upset the current balance of power in the region. Furthermore, by facilitating China’s efforts to project its maritime power in the Western Pacific, the current administration is oblivious to the fact that if China gains control of the regional maritime commons, this will adversely affect the Philippines’ territorial and long-term strategic and economic interests as an archipelagic state.

The current administration owes the Filipino nation an explanation on why it is appeasing an expansionist power bent on altering East Asia’s territorial status quo. It should enlighten the nation on why it is trading the country’s sovereign rights and strategic advantages as an island-nation in exchange for trade concessions, investments, grants, and loans from an emergent power bent on expanding into the country’s maritime domain. 

 

Renato Cruz De Castro, Ph.D. is a trustee and program convenor for foreign policy and regional security at the Stratbase Albert Del Rosario Institute (ADRi) and a professor at the De La Salle University.

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