The once favorable and intimate relations between the Philippines and the United States (US) seem to be heading to a road of complications, with the Philippines under the helm of President Rodrigo Duterte showing signs and interest to steer away from the US influence.
Duterte’s announcement was well received by the the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) who argued that upholding an independent and peaceful foreign policy is one of the principles among the key items in the 12-point program of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines. According to the CPP this could lead to the scrapping of military treaties with the US and the exit of US troops from the country
The announcement comes at a time where relations between the Philippines and the United State are sour; an atmosphere caused by Duterte’s undiplomatic comments about the US government interfering with the Philippines internal affairs, and insults to President Obama, which also led to the cancellation of a meeting between the two presidents that was supposed to take place at the side lines of the 11th East Asia Summit that took place in Vientiane, Lao PDR.
The paradigm shift towards an independent foreign policy will build on ‘principles of sovereign equality, non-interference and the commitment to a peaceful settlement of disputes to best serve our people and protect the interests of our country’. It also signals a period of change in dealing with the South China Sea (SCS) dispute. The dispute had complicated not only the Philippines relations with China, but also brought challenges for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in dealing with the SCS matter.
As for ASEAN, for a long time, its position on the SCS stressed the importance for the parties concerned to resolve their disputes by peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). However ASEAN’s position was always undermined by the lack of unity on how to deal with China because China always insisted to resolve the dispute bilaterally with the states involved, while on the other hand the Philippines continued to put pressure on the regional bloc to denounce China’s presence in the South China waters. So now with the paradigm shift in the Philippines foreign policy, it might be possible to open bilateral talks between the Philippines and China on how to move forward peacefully, especially after the ruling by the international arbitration court on the SCS in favour of the Philippines that China’s sole claim of the SCS is illegal.
Consequently, the paradigm shift in foreign and military policies provides a picture of which way the Philippines is heading, which is definitely away from the influence of the US. Duterte is determined to opt out of US-led patrols of the South China Sea because the Philippines does not want trouble, and also that the Philippines navy will not join any expedition of patrolling the seas because he does not want his country to be involved in a hostile act. It is thus important to note that while the US is set to lose a foothold in the Philippines military sphere in the SCS, Duterte is willing to look at China and Russia as new acquaintances for military purposes, to break away from the long standing relations the US that has been going since the 1950s where about 75 percent of the Philippines’ arms imports came from the US, while Russia and China have since that time been out of the loop. So whilst it might be regarded as too early to conclude that the Philippines’ pursuit of an independent foreign policy will have a positive effect on the SCS dispute, it is certainly going to have an impact.