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A nation must think before it acts.
In spring 2021, hundreds of Chinese fishing boats gathered at several South China Sea islets, most notably at Whitsun Reef, within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Worried that China might use the boats, which were suspected of being part of its maritime militia, to permanently occupy the reef, the Philippines dispatched navy and coast guard ships to the area. When Beijing called on Manila to withdraw its ships, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte demurred, somewhat clumsily explaining: “I do not want a quarrel. I do not want trouble. I respect your position, and you respect mine… I will not withdraw. Even if you kill me. Our friendship will end here.” His secretary of foreign affairs, Teodoro Locsin, more clearly (and colorfully) responded to China on Twitter: “China, my friend, how politely can I put it? Let me see… O… GET THE F*** OUT.” For a moment, it seemed as if the Philippines was about to change its half-decade-long accommodative policy toward Beijing.
Soon after, Duterte reverted to form. He barred Philippine government officials from publicly commenting on the South China Sea dispute, and Locsin obsequiously retreated from his remarks. Nevertheless, the episode put a spotlight on the frustration among even the most China-friendly Philippine leaders. Since taking office in 2016, Duterte has done all that he could to cozy up to China (even declaring himself its ally). He hoped that Beijing would reciprocate by shelving its maritime differences with Manila and helping to finance economic development in the Philippines. Unfortunately for Duterte, China has been not only more aggressive towards Philippine claims in the South China Sea, but also slow to invest in new industrial and infrastructure projects.
Of course, Duterte is not the first Philippine leader to try an accommodative approach with China. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo also did so during her presidency from 2001 to 2010. By contrast, Benigno Aquino III, Duterte’s immediate predecessor, did precisely the opposite. He actively resisted Chinese encroachments on Philippine sovereignty as president from 2010 to 2016. As a result, Philippine relations with China have oscillated from one extreme to the other and back again. All three presidents faced the same strategic dilemma: How should a militarily weak Philippines deal with an ever more powerful China? Ultimately, Arroyo and Duterte crafted their strategies based on an acceptance of Philippine inferiority. Aquino, on the other hand, devised his by seeking ways to overcome it. Among the most important ways included not only his high-profile bid for the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) to dismiss China’s “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea, but also his not-so-glamorous work to resurrect the Philippine military’s external defense forces.
Certainly, the Philippine military was never a priority for Arroyo. One can argue whether that was a cause or result of the series of military mutinies that dogged her administration. In either case, nearly a decade of neglect significantly weakened the Philippine military’s capacity for external defense. By the end of her presidency, the Philippine navy was reduced to only four operational offshore patrol vessels (none of which were equipped for modern naval combat), and the Philippine air force could field no aircraft capable of aerial combat.
Absent any effective capability to protect Philippine maritime claims, Arroyo appeared to make an implicit bargain by exchanging a managed erosion of Philippine claims for economic development assistance from China. To that end, she devised an accord called the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) that permitted the national oil companies of China, the Philippines, and Vietnam to cooperatively explore for energy resources in their disputed waters. The accord was structured in a way that suggested that Manila recognized the legitimacy of the other countries’ South China Sea claims, an admission that Beijing had long sought. Meanwhile, she signed some 65 bilateral agreements with China in all. Unfortunately for Arroyo, the JMSU never went into effect, running afoul of the Philippine constitution, which bars any compromise of national sovereignty. Moreover, her advocacy on behalf of Chinese companies, like ZTE, to build the Philippines’ national broadband network and a commuter railway led to criminal charges of graft against her.
When Duterte became president, he seemed to take a page from Arroyo’s strategic playbook, albeit with visions of grander deals given the advent of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. After he took office, Duterte quickly sought to befriend China. He ended Aquino’s confrontational stance and “set aside” the PCA’s ruling, which offered greater international recognition to Philippine claims in the South China Sea as little more than “a piece of paper.” And, like Arroyo, he sought a deal with China to jointly explore for energy resources in the South China Sea. He even signed a memorandum of understanding with Beijing to that end in 2018, once again raising the prospect of joint energy development, however legally unfeasible, in the disputed waters.
To further demonstrate his shift towards China, Duterte announced a “separation” from the United States. He ended joint Philippine-U.S. maritime patrols of the South China Sea and, for a time, joint Philippine-U.S. military exercises. He also ordered the American troops stationed in the Philippines out (a decision made easier after a botched U.S.-supported Philippine operation against Islamic terrorists there). Finally, in early 2020, he cancelled the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which had allowed American troops to be deployed in the Philippines. Although he has since quietly granted two extensions to the VFA, Duterte has made no secret of his overall aim: He wants the Philippines to have a foreign policy that is truly independent of the United States. (Yet, a cynic might wonder whether his tight embrace of China would achieve any more than swapping one great-power benefactor for another.)
Abroad, Aquino may be best remembered for presiding over the Philippines’ legal victory over China at the PCA in 2016, but he architected several other notable efforts, too. He expanded the security relationship between Manila and Washington beyond their longtime mutual defense treaty by concluding the ten-year Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which permitted not only a semi-permanent American military presence in the Philippines for the first time since the early 1990s, but also extended the two countries’ cooperation to maritime security, maritime domain awareness, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Going further afield, he fostered closer security ties with other Asian countries, like India, Japan, and Vietnam. Perhaps his most ambitious and least appreciated achievement was his effort to resurrect the Philippine military’s external defense forces. To do so, he secured the passage of legislation to reform the Philippine government’s defense procurement process and gained support for a 15-year plan to acquire the equipment that the Philippine military would need to mount a “minimum credible deterrence” against Chinese incursions.
In the short term, however, Aquino believed he needed to forcefully respond to China’s increased aggressiveness. Lacking any military capacity of his own, Aquino leaned on the Philippines’ mutual defense treaty with the United States. No doubt, having the world’s strongest military power as a treaty ally is useful, but complete dependence carries its own problems because for Manila to effectively leverage its treaty relationship with Washington, it must be sure that the United States interprets the terms of their treaty in the same way. For example, whereas the Philippines might view the treaty’s terms as covering all its South China Sea claims, the United States might view them as including only the Philippines’ internationally recognized borders. Hence, Manila has long pressed Washington to clarify its interpretation of their treaty. Washington, thinking that ambiguity could help to restrain Manila from taking provocative actions, has been slow to act. Given their country’s dependence on the United States, Philippine leaders have little leverage to push it to act any faster, a fact that has grated on them, whether pro-China or not.
It also is one of the reasons why the plan to resurrect the Philippine military’s external defense forces has been so important. But to reach the plan’s goals, the Philippines has dedicated less than one percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) to national defense (and only a portion of which is devoted to external defense). Indeed, Manila has allowed its defense budget to slip every year as a percentage of GDP since the late 1990s, despite the rise of a serious challenge from China. Small wonder that the Philippines has fallen behind on its plan. The Philippines will have to increase its defense spending if it hopes to catch up. If it were to spend as much on defense as Vietnam, whose expenditures top two percent of its GDP, the Philippines could far more effectively defend its maritime claims.
Five years into his presidency, Duterte has little to show for his hoped-for bargain with Beijing. China has made the most of the Philippines’ self-weakened position. The massive investments that Duterte trumpeted after his many meetings with Chinese leaders have so far failed to materialize. The only two notable BRI projects in the Philippines are small: One involves a couple of bridges in Manila and the other, a controversial dam, could seriously harm a nature preserve. In the meantime, China has not tempered its pressure on Philippine-claimed features, like Whitsun Reef, in the South China Sea. Nor has China reduced its military presence in the region. Such slights have made Duterte’s accommodative policy look ill-considered. On the eve of Duterte’s first trip to Beijing in 2016, his secretary of finance, hoping to bring back tens of billions in deals and loans, magnanimously said: “We are going to discuss with [Chinese leaders] areas of mutual interest . . . not make them lose face over the arbitral decision.” He need not have worried; Beijing paid it no heed.
As a result, on the edges, Duterte has eased back on his separation from the United States. For example, he allowed Philippine-U.S. joint exercises to resume after China occupied Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal. Duterte may even have an opportunity to further clarify the terms of the mutual defense treaty between the Philippines and the United States, given that the Biden administration seems as though it will continue its predecessor’s harder line towards China. Already, Washington has made clear that should the Chinese maritime militia attack Philippine naval or coast guard ships, the United States would come to their aid.
Even so, the best way for the Philippines to ensure its sovereignty is to more meaningfully invest in its own national security. That means going beyond “minimum credible deterrence.” Doing so would not only give China greater pause, but also the United States greater confidence in its mutual defense treaty with the Philippines. No doubt, such an investment will not be easy to make, nor will it yield results overnight. If Manila can work toward investing two percent of its GDP into its external defense forces, then it can build a military capacity that is truly capable of “credible deterrence.” At the very least, it will enable Manila to better control its own destiny and reduce the need for dependence on any great power. Best yet, it will expand the range of options available to future Philippine presidents so that they can pursue relations with China that are neither too hot nor too cold, but perhaps closer to just right.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.