Philippines: Rodrigo Duterte’s pivot to China

Duterte is questioning the Philippines’ century-old US alliance while ramping up his diplomatic flirtation with China.

An unmanned aerial vehicle blimp with a banner supporting Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte flying along Manila Bay in Manila, Philippine [EPA]
A blimp with a banner supporting Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte flies along Manila Bay in Manila, Philippines [EPA]

“I am no American puppet. I am the president of a sovereign country and I am not answerable to anyone except the Filipino people,” proclaimed Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ controversial leader. It was a defiant remark in response to the West’s increasingly vocal criticism of his “shock and awe” campaign against drugs.

Over the past few weeks, Duterte has upped the ante by questioning the Philippines’ century-old alliance with the United States while intensifying his diplomatic flirtation with China.

Inside Story – Is the US losing traditional allies in Asia to China?

First he threatened to expel American Special Forces aiding Filipino counterterror operations in the southern island of Mindanao.

Then he suggested ending joint maritime patrols and military exercises with America in the South China Sea and, more recently, even discussed the possibility of abrogating defence agreements with the US.

Deep suspicion

Meanwhile, Duterte went so far as considering an alliance with Russia and China. Currently, the Duterte administration is negotiating a 25-year military agreement with Beijing, paving the way for purchase of Chinese weaponry by the largely US-equipped and trained armed forces of the Philippines.

OPINION: Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia in tatters

There have also been parallel negotiations to buy advanced weaponry from Moscow, including MI17 or MI24 heavily armoured attack helicopters. Time and again, Duterte has called for closer and friendly ties with the Eastern powers, particularly China, which a majority of Filipinos view with deep suspicion.

The Filipino leader has ... adopted a pragmatic position on the South China Sea, calling for a dialogue-based, bilateral settlement of maritime disputes.


The Filipino leader has, quite paradoxically, adopted a pragmatic position on the South China Sea, calling for a dialogue-based, bilateral settlement of maritime disputes.

And, unlike any of his predecessors, Duterte is set to embark on a state visit to China before the US. All of a sudden, Duterte seems to have reshuffled regional strategic alignments in Asia.

New best friend

“I am ready to not really break ties [with America] but we will open alliances with China and … Medvedev [Russia],” said Duterte recently, catching even his most avid supporters by surprise.

Invoking Caesar, Duterte has expressed his preference to join the “other side of the ideological barrier”, breaking ties with the West altogether.

He has almost completely discarded his predecessor, Benigno Aquino’s confrontational strategy towards China, which was largely hinged on America military and diplomatic support. Instead, Duterte has emphasised the necessity for setting aside sovereignty disputes with China by focusing on joint development schemes.

President Rodrigo Duterte [Al Jazeera]
President Rodrigo Duterte [Al Jazeera]

He has sought to downplay the Philippines arbitration case against China, which nullified the bulk of China’s claims across the South China Sea. In fact, he has refused to even raise the issue in multilateral forums.

Meanwhile, he has expanded cooperation with China in various fields, including in his signature “war on drugs” campaign.

“We stand ready to have anti-drug cooperation with the Philippines and formulate a common action plan for it,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in response to Manila’s request for assistance.

Duterte has repeatedly extolled Beijing’s offer to aid his anti-drugs policy by offering logistical support and intelligence. As a symbol of its commitment, China has even built rehabilitation centres for Filipino drug users.

OPINION: Rodrigo Duterte’s game amid the spat with Obama

China has also offered to revamp the Philippines’ decrepit public infrastructure. Several senior Filipino officials have visited China to discuss potentially multibillion-dollar investments, with Duterte going the extra mile to portray China as a loving and caring neighbour to his countrymen.


“I have a good feeling they [China] really want to help us in a big way … I promise you I will build hospitals and schools from the soft-term loans we will get [from China],” promised Duterte in a recent speech.

The backlash

Before his trip to China later this month, Duterte is preparing a huge business delegation to negotiate a wide-ranging series of bilateral trade and investment deals. China is expected to roll out the red carpet and woo him by showering the Filipino leader with utmost hospitality and respect.

Intent on ensuring territorial disputes don’t undermine burgeoning ties with China, Duterte has seemingly asked Filipinos to not insist on regaining control of the bitterly disputed Scarborough Shoal, which falls well within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone and was the site of a naval standoff between the Philippines and China in 2012.

Emphasising the supposed futility of confronting China on territorial disputes, Duterte has suggested that the Philippines should “not touch the Scarborough Shoal issue because we cannot win that”, since, he argues, “We can’t beat [China]”.

Meanwhile, relations with traditional allies such as America have hit rock bottom, as disagreements over human rights and South China Sea issues are compounded.

Confrontational language

The US President Barack Obama has openly criticised Duterte’s campaign against drugs, while encouraging the Philippines to settle territorial disputes with China in accordance to the arbitration award at The Hague. Notwithstanding Duterte’s fiery criticism of America, the superpower remains deeply popular among Filipinos, who are largely critical and suspicious of China.

The same is true of the Philippine security establishment, which is deeply dependent on American training as well as logistical and financial support.

More importantly, Duterte’s confrontational language towards America has invited vigorous criticism among his most influential supporters, including former President Fidel Ramos, who recently warned about the risk of “throwing away decades of military partnership, tactical proficiency, compatible weaponry, predictable logistics, and soldier-to-soldier camaraderie” with Americans.

For now, however, it seems that Duterte is more interested in pushing back against Western critics and rebuilding ties with China, even if that means renegotiating certain parameters of existing security cooperation with America. But it is unlikely that he will ditch his country’s alliance with Washington altogether.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.