On 30 June 2016, when Rodrigo Duterte took office as president of the Philippines after having been elected on an anti-drugs platform, few could imagine that the power balance in Southeast Asia was going to undergo such an unforeseen reconfiguration.

The election of the new president would eventually mark the start of a new regional shift: after decades of being under the incontestable influence of the United States, some in Southeast Asia are increasingly looking towards China. The Philippines has long been the greatest counterforce to China’s power in the region, but this situation is being overturned by the country’s increasing ties with the red industrial giant.

Over the past months, Duterte’s statements of intent have shown overt despise for the US-Philippine alliance. The most noteworthy area where collaborations seem to be collapsing is in the military field. Duterte has pledged to not execute any further joint military exercises with the United States, and has said that he wants US troops out of the country.

This is an unprecedented move, given that there are 100 US Army operation troops on the southern island of Mindanao that help with counterterrorism, and that 6400 US troops have participated in two joint military exercises in the Philippines since April.

At the same time, he has been reaching out to China, and his visit to Beijing last October has been the most outstanding example of this. During his stay, he signed $24 billion worth of investment and cooperation deals, which included the construction in the Philippines of large infrastructure projects by Chinese state-owned companies, claiming that “it’s only China that can help us”.

The Chinese administration is delighted by Duterte’s move. A week before his visit, the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines, Zhao Jianhua, announced plans to lift the travel warning that since 2014 had been advising Chinese tourists to avoid going to the Philippines for safety reasons, and he claimed that “the sun […] will shine beautifully on the new chapter of bilateral relations”.

Other plans for the future might include the lifting of import bans on several Philippine fruits and negotiations of small arms sales. Whether these plans materialise is yet to be seen, but what is clear is that Sino-Philippine relations are at an all-time high while US-Philippine ones are as critical as they have ever been.

Any action that undermines the US will benefit China’s position in Southeast Asia, and thus will be embraced by the Chinese, who are seeing their appropriation of territory in the South China Sea held back by US freedom-of-navigation operations.

Relations between the Southeast Asian republic and the US, however, have traditionally been the complete opposite of what they seem to be today. Before Duterte’s pivot to China, the Philippines was the US’s most reliable ally in the region, and Eisenhower, Reagan or any other US president up to this date would have found it hard to believe that the US-Philippine alliance was to become as weak as it is today.

A long-standing example of such a historical alliance is the Mutual Defence Treaty, signed bilaterally between both countries in 1951. This pact, which is one of the seven collective defence treaties that the US has signed with different partners throughout history, states that both parties will support each other if any of them is attacked. This was, as with NATO, an attempt to secure the US sphere from the expansion of the opposite sphere, then represented by the USSR and China (not much seems to have changed in these terms). But the culmination of the alliance was probably the Enhanced Defence and Cooperation Agreement, signed in 2014 by Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino.

This pact gave the US access to five military bases in the Philippines, one of which is relatively close to Chinese bases in the Spratly Islands. Duterte hinted at the calling off of the agreement, although the Philippine Defence Secretary claimed in early November that the EDCA was to be implemented.

Another notable pro-US and anti-China move by the once US-embracing Philippine republic was the lawsuit in 2014 against Chinese actions in the South China Sea. China, in only one of the many expansionist moves it has performed in the South China Sea, took control of the Scarborough Shoal and blocked Filipino fishermen from accessing it. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague deemed China’s actions illegal.

This was a blow to the legitimacy of Chinese actions and a boost to the US-Philippine containment of Chinese power, but Duterte has not continued president Aquino’s trend of defending the Philippines’ claims in the South China Sea, in order to make it easier for him to build good relations with China.

To understand the unconcealed anti-Americanism that underlies Duterte’s thoughts and statements, it is important to understand the colonial background of the US-Philippine relationship. In 1898, after the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded the Philippines to the US, and although Filipino nationalists declared war on the US in 1899 in an attempt to achieve independence, the archipelago remained a US colony until 1946.

The massacre carried out in the early days by US forces still resonates in the mind of Duterte today, especially when Washington accuses him of violating human rights in his war on drugs. This colonial background partly shapes Duterte’s anti-Americanism and his eagerness to move away from the US in order to show the world that his country is not a subservient neo-colony.

Perfecto Yasay, the Philippine foreign secretary, said that Filipinos cannot be “the little brown brothers of America”, referring to a slang term used during the colonial period. For some, like Luke Hunt, writing for The Diplomat, Duterte’s moves are “simplistic and self-serving at best”; but put into the perspective of post-colonial relations, it might seem comprehensible why Duterte might consider a personal task breaking apart the Philippines’ dependence on the US. His actions are aimed at making the Philippines a fully sovereign republic.

Duterte’s pivot to China has implications for the unity and centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, especially as the Philippines will become the chairman of ASEAN in 2017 and the coordinator of ASEAN-China dialogue partner relations in 2018. ASEAN has traditionally sought centrality in power conflicts, pointing to the rule of law rather than overtly taking sides.

But now, as individual member states try to either move towards China’s sphere or remain as a counterforce to China’s increasing aggressiveness in the South China Sea, a certain degree of disunity among ASEAN members is ensured. While Indonesia and Vietnam are angered by Chinese intrusions into the South China Sea, aid-dependent Cambodia has shifted to Chinese economic generosity, and US influence in Thailand and Malaysia is also dwindling.

Such divisions undermine ASEAN unity, and prevent the block from having a unified position regarding the South China Sea dispute. If ASEAN wants to have influence on the world stage, it should seek consensus within itself and then act in a consistent manner.

However, Duterte’s moves will hinder the development of ASEAN as a politically united force. The question remains, however, of whether bilateral discussions between the Philippines and China will actually de-escalate tensions in the region, something which could have positive effects.

More widely, and putting the issue against the backdrop of international politics, Duterte’s actions undermine the position of the US while giving China the upper hand. This is a piece in the mechanism by which, over the last decade, the US has receded as the incontestable world superpower while China has risen to the point where it has become the US’s competitor for world leadership.

The South China Sea dispute is the most accurate representation of this, with China constructing military facilities in disputed territories while being challenged by the US, which has been conducting freedom of navigation patrols over the last months. As the Philippines, which was once the main stronghold against China, quits its role as the counterweight to Chinese power, other ASEAN nations involved in the dispute (namely Vietnam and Malaysia), as well as Japan, are becoming increasingly worried.

In addition, while the prospects of securing the Trans-Pacific Partnership with the US become virtually defunct after the election of Donald Trump, the region’s economic ties with China are growing through deals like the Regional Economic Comprehensive Partnership. If the trend continues, China will one day ultimately supersede the US as the world leader.

Despite Duterte’s harsh claims, however, there remains the question of how much will be translated into real policy and how much will just remain rhetoric. Clarifications by key members of Duterte’s government suggest that the picture is less dramatic than it seems.

Foreign secretary Perfecto Yasay explained that joint military exercises were hindering the country’s potential relation with China, but apart from that, the government had no intention of cutting diplomatic ties with the US. What we know for certain is that two regular training exercises, Phiblex (Philippine-US Amphibious Landing Exercises) and CARAT (Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training) will no longer be taking place.

In any case, the US is the third largest trading partner of the Philippines and its second largest investor, and a complete end to both countries’ ties would certainly have a negative impact on the Philippines. A second important question is to what degree was Duterte’s anti-Americanism linked specifically to the Obama administration.

Under a Trump government, there could be scope for improvement, but it is too early to be able to determine anything: for now, an official presidential communication expressing “warm congratulations to Mr. Donald Trump” is the only thing we have.

Whatever actions taken by Duterte to undercut US influence, he should remember that US popularity has always been high among Filipinos, and remains so. A 2015 poll by the Pew Research Centre shows that 92% of Filipinos held a favourable view of the USA, and 71% thought US military presence in Asia was positive. In his moves, Duterte has dared to challenge the century-long status quo, but he is going to have to find the balance between the sovereignty he desires and the cooperation he needs.


Roberto is currently studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Warwick. He has been part of the organising committee of the Warwick ASEAN Conference 2017. His interests include international relations and European and Southeast Asian politics. He can be contacted at r.gimenez-llamas@warwick.ac.uk.

*This article was first published by Warwick ASEAN Conference on 16th December 2016.

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.