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Oct 27, 2016 | 09:30 GMT

Duterte Walks the Tightrope

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivers a speech at the Philippines Economic Forum in Tokyo on Oct. 26
(KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images)

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is making the rounds in the Asia-Pacific region. Just days after signing a collection of deals worth $24 billion during a much-anticipated trip to China, Duterte headed off to Japan, China's longtime rival and the Philippines' largest foreign investor and export market. Over the course of his three-day visit, set to conclude Oct. 27, Duterte is expected to strike deals worth billions more, including $400 million in loans for agricultural and infrastructure projects in the president's home province of Mindanao. Tokyo is also on course to enhance its maritime cooperation with Manila, bolstering the Philippine coast guard's capabilities with the lease of five light surveillance planes on top of the two Japanese patrol vessels that Manila received this week. But securing support from China and Japan is only half the battle for the Philippine president, and the next part promises to be trickier. Duterte must find a way to build his partnerships with Beijing and Tokyo without alienating the support of either one, while also fending off China's maritime encroachment.

In the five months since Duterte took office, Beijing and Manila seem to have made remarkable progress in mending fences after squaring off over the South China Sea. Of Duterte's many accommodating gestures to Beijing, his efforts to downplay the Permanent Court of Arbitration's July ruling against China especially wooed the country's leaders, who received the Philippine president warmly during his state visit. Chinese President Xi Jinping went so far as to describe China and the Philippines as "blood brothers," a stark contrast to the hostility that erupted between the two countries during the rule of Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino III.

A Rebalancing Act

Though it is a marked departure for the Philippines' recent foreign policy, Duterte's stance toward China is not so surprising. He is the latest in a line of Philippine leaders who have tried to strike a balance with the foreign powers in the region, including the United States and China. The Philippines is still a weak state struggling to meet its basic geopolitical imperatives of unity, territorial integrity and external security. Appealing to multiple powers in the Asia-Pacific region, rather than relying on support from a single foreign backer, will better afford the country access to the resources it needs to achieve these aims. For Duterte, this means expanding the economic revival begun under his predecessor, upgrading the nation's dilapidated infrastructure, containing the multifarious insurgencies along its regional and religious fault lines, and securing a critical sea lane and maritime buffer. As his recent diplomatic junkets have demonstrated, the Philippine president will take help where he can get it.

Duterte's emphasis on foreign policy independence is more than just nationalist pandering; it is an attempt to recoup the losses that Manila sustained over the past six years with a largely unilateral approach. When Beijing's aggression in the South China Sea put the Philippines' security and economic interests in jeopardy, the previous administration responded by drawing closer to the United States. In doing so, however, Manila distanced itself from the economic opportunities that China had to offer that the Philippines did not want to miss. Now, Duterte hopes to recover some of those opportunities without compromising his nation's sovereignty. But before embarking on this ambitious endeavor, Duterte first needed to consolidate his power. To that end, he launched a sweeping and violent war on drugs, which the United States has criticized for its ruthlessness. Duterte fired back with threats to bring an end to his country's strategic alliance with Washington.

Duterte's rebalancing scheme, however wobbly, bodes well for Beijing, which could exploit the frictions between Manila and Washington for its own gain. But notwithstanding Duterte's conciliatory statements toward Beijing — and his inflammatory comments toward Washington — China harbors no illusion that the Philippines will sever ties with the United States.

Calming the Seas

Though Beijing and Manila seem to have set aside their dispute in the South China Sea for now, they have not laid it to rest. That neither side acknowledged broaching the subject of the Scarborough Shoal during Duterte's visit is telling. A temporary concession from China on the contested shoal could ease the way to greater cooperation with the Philippines, but neither country is yielding. Duterte and Xi are walking a tightrope, trying to convince their publics of their efforts toward conciliation without making any significant concessions. For Manila, whose loss of the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 provided the impetus for increasing security ties with Washington, the stakes are especially high. This is why, having returned from China, Duterte was quick to announce that Philippine fishermen could go back to the shoal "within days." Beijing may quietly allow the fishermen to resume their activities and might even offer a broader settlement on the Scarborough Shoal. But Manila can little afford to bank on Beijing's continued goodwill in this or any future negotiations over the South China Sea.

The Pacific Rim has numerous overlapping maritime claims. As China moves to secure access to transit routes, it has pressed its longstanding claim to a "nine-dash line" encompassing territory claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

Until the two countries reach an acceptable settlement on the South China Sea, Manila's alliance with the United States will continue to lend it clout in negotiations. Despite the distaste that he has expressed for Washington, Duterte and his administration have consistently backpedaled so far, emphasizing the importance of the strategic partnership. So long as the United States sees the Philippines as its means to a strategic presence in the Asia-Pacific region, Manila will have the flexibility to explore its options and expand its diplomatic outreach. Its new partnerships, meanwhile, will enable Manila to keep adjusting its relations with Washington, for instance in reviewing the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. Of course, the Philippines may still decide to alter its relationship with the United States at some point. After all, a combination of nationalism, domestic politics and a desire for independent foreign policy — not unlike prevailing sentiments in the Philippines today — drove Manila to close the U.S. military bases in its territory in the 1990s as Cold War security threats abated. For now, however, the political costs of such an action outweigh the possible gains.

The President's Precarious Position

Duterte's visit to Japan exemplifies Manila's policy of keeping its options open. Over the years, Tokyo has steadily increased its economic assistance to and investment in Southeast Asia, often going head-to-head with China over big-ticket projects. Manila has welcomed Japan's increased military assistance and involvement in the South China Sea, where Duterte shows no sign of conceding. The deepening ties between Japan and the Philippines reflect Duterte's goals of balance and independence, playing Beijing and Tokyo off each other for Manila's benefit — much as other South China Sea claimants such as Vietnam and Malaysia have done.

So far, Duterte's diplomatic agenda and unorthodox approach to politics have enabled him to reap economic concessions from the two Asian rivals while maintaining the negotiating strength that the U.S. alliance structure provides. But this freedom is unlikely to last forever. Powerful stakeholders across the Philippine political spectrum — in particular, the country's military, which is wary of Duterte's efforts to tilt away from the United States — will limit his room to maneuver. Though many Philippine voters in the south share the president's antipathy toward Washington, most of the country still views the United States favorably. Despite his high approval ratings, Duterte may not be able to count on popular support to shield his contentious foreign policy initiatives from military, legislative or judicial scrutiny. Likewise, his popularity will not save him from backlash if he is seen as trading the Philippines' maritime sovereignty for Chinese favor.

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