Duterte’s Incoherent and Nebulous Foreign Policy

by Jeraldine Pascual

IT WAS surely not an easy feat for a 73-year-old president to travel to 21 countries during his first year in office, and to assume the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) during his second. The experience provided President Rodrigo Duterte multiple opportunities to learn the ropes of diplomacy and international affairs. Yet halfway through his term, Duterte’s foreign policy remains nebulous and incoherent and still leaves much to be desired. Duterte went on fewer foreign trips in 2018. His visits to non-traditional Philippine allies such as India, Israel and Jordan featured discussions on defense cooperation or arms deals. However, his unconventional statements and behavior abroad were often mired in controversy, sidelining the possible benefits of his travels.  His kiss on the lips of an overseas Filipina worker (OFW) in South Korea, his “42 virgins” tourism joke in India, his remark about the Holocaust and later his attempt to mitigate the fallout it caused by describing Adolf Hitler as “insane” — these, rather than any other diplomatic effort, served as fodder for news and commentary in the media. Coverage of Duterte’s foreign travels has dutifully documented these with soundbites and clips — with little or no explanation of the bilateral agreements that were signed or the failure to sign such agreements. To cap off the year, the president joked about molesting his family’s housemaid when he was a young boy. Considering the large percentage of Filipinos abroad working as domestic helpers, with a number of them making it in the news as victims of abuse, including rape and sexual attacks and causing the Philippine government to act on such abuses,  the shockingly tasteless revelation should have elicited more media discussion, if not outrage, but it didn’t. In the first quarter of 2018, the gruesome death of OFW Joanna Demafelis had sparked a diplomatic crisis between the Philippines and Kuwait but as with so many issues, the outrage has receded in public memory.
But unlike some of the country’s bilateral partnerships and alliances, everything seems to be going well with Duterte’s determined pivot to China. Justified as a pursuit of a more independent foreign policy, Duterte continued to cozy up to Chinese leaders, signing on to various deals even as he pointedly marginalized others. He has shunned those that have been critical of his war on drugs, disregard for human rights and rule of law, and has heaped nothing but praise for Xi Jinping, whom he said he “just simply loved” because the Chinese president understood his problems. It appears that the relationship with China is the only one that matters to this president and his administration, as his inappropriate and offensive joke demonstrated in the presence of the Chinese envoy: “Why not make the Philippines a province of China?” DE FACTO OCCUPATION CONTINUES The foreign policy with China may be the most important to President Duterte, but it is the one that rankles Filipinos most, including some of his supporters. It has been two years since the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of the Philippines and invalidated China’s claims to the West Philippine Sea. Beijing continues to flex its military muscle in the high-value waterway nonetheless, crippling economic and environmental security not just for the Philippines but for its neighbors as well. Chinese military airstrips and bases have been constructed on three reefs in the Spratlys, and Philippine fisherfolk continue to be harassed by Chinese Coast Guard vessels in Scarborough Shoal. China has also taken an interest in Benham Rise, the uncontested underwater plateau lying east of the province of Isabela. The Duterte administration granted China’s request to conduct scientific research in the resource-rich area. After much criticism for this accommodation, Duterte’s knee-jerk response — to rename the plateau Philippine Rise — did not really do anything to assert the country’s sovereignty. In what could be interpreted as China’s bid to assert its maritime power, some features of Benham Rise now carry Chinese names.
China installations on Fiery Cross Reef, also Kagitingan Kagitingan Reef (Philippines), in Spratlys group of islands. | Photo from Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), CSIS
Duterte’s desire to please China has raised concerns about the loss of national sovereignty. Yet only a selected few from the press venture from the safe zones of DFA sources to break news on Beijing’s proximate maritime activities, and even fewer keep up with the government’s feeble responses to China’s challenge, thus failing to focus public scrutiny and expert criticism of this diplomatic strategy or lack of it. CHINESE DEALS IN THE DARK Surveys of the Social Weather Stations revealed the public distrust of Beijing’s true intentions. Filipinos have become wary of the growing presence of Chinese nationals and the Chinese government’s influence on national policy. Chinese presence and influence is also growing domestically, with Chinese ships and planes making stops in Davao City, Chinese nationals flocking to the country for work and Chinese companies — some of them with questionable track records — bagging big-ticket infrastructure projects. Averse to what it calls “megaphone diplomacy,” the Department of Foreign Affairs, led by then Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, constantly provided vague and unsatisfactory answers to media queries on the administration’s troubling accommodation of China. On many occasions, Cayetano failed to show a single written document detailing policies or agreements with Beijing. To dispel mounting criticism of his agency’s silence over Chinese incursions, Cayetano initially claimed that the DFA lodged “50 to 100” diplomatic protests, only to backpedal and say they had not really counted them. For the former secretary, “In a purpose-driven foreign policy, how many doesn’t really matter.” At the heart of the renewal of ties between Philippines and China is the proposed joint exploration for oil and gas, a solution to the threat of energy insecurity, which legitimizes the entry of China in Philippine waters. The DFA kept the media in the dark about any progress on the framework for this endeavor, as well as the role and members of the technical working group. Because of the secrecy, not enough questions have been raised about the scheme. Few noted for context the similarity or difference of the deal with the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking proposed during former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s administration, which until now is being questioned for its legality. On October 17, Cayetano resigned his post when he filed his certificate of candidacy for Taguig representative, the turnover to his successor of whatever he accomplished in the framework unreported.


The favorable year for the Duterte-Xi partnership culminated in a highly-publicized state visit from the Chinese president last November 20 and 21, which saw the signing of 29 bilateral agreements. Among these, the media highlighted the memorandum of understanding (MOU) on the proposed joint oil exploration. By the time of the visit, the DFA was already under a new secretary, who tried to create a semblance of transparency. Following few reports about the confusion on the custody of the MOU and calls for its release, Secretary Teodoro “Teddy Boy” Locsin, Jr. revealed some details not in a press conference but in a televised interview, saying that he himself wrote the memorandum. The contentious term “joint exploration” has been changed to “cooperation,” which, according to Locsin, meant that China and the Philippines have only decided to negotiate arrangements before conducting any actual joint activity.   Some reports went back to the notable critics of the proposed venture, who approved of the phrasing of the MOU and the conditions stated therein. The complete document was finally released on November 26. Other deals, however, remain largely unexplained in the news, with some of them still to be released by Malacanang.
Photo from PCOO website.
Media coverage has been lazy and sloppy, with few reporters informed enough to point to the lack of government transparency which in itself was a major story. Most were content with reporting head officials’ ambiguous answers. No one bothered to ask, “Are these deals with China worth it? Perhaps because there is no simple answer to that question, which would require in-depth and explanatory reports to surface a definitive answer.


Indeed, China has extended its benevolence beyond the Philippines. ASEAN members’ respective national interests have been influenced by their relationship with China, whether economic or otherwise. Some observers have criticized the ASEAN for its lack of solidarity in light of the increasing militarization of the South China Sea. The 2016 arbitration ruling could have provided ways to resolve the sea dispute as a region. But with Duterte himself setting it aside, no common stance has been achieved since, leaving Vietnam the sole voice protesting China’s maritime aggression. Adding to the impression of inaction from the Philippines’ end, Duterte’s skipping of some events and “power-napping” in the November 11-15 ASEAN Summit were highlighted in the news. Philippine officials subsequently defended his action because his age required him to rest from his “punishing work schedule.” International media also reported this incident, some of them going as far as comparing the president to 92-year-old Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad who said it was his duty to attend meetings. Worse, media caught Duterte’s outrageous statement that China was “already in possession” of the South China Sea, so military exercises there serve no purpose. With focus on the leaders and events, issues on regional development were sidelined. Few stories explained the value of the three-year timeline agreed upon by China and the ASEAN members to finally complete the long-overdue code of conduct (COC) on the South China Sea. Does the COC still mean anything at this point, given Beijing’s unilateral assertions in the area?  Media reports did not look into this crucial issue, stopping at Duterte’s statement to “try his best” to comply with the timeline.
The media could have interpreted Duterte’s policy shift to give more thoughtful coverage to foreign affairs at this time. Instead, it has highlighted the controversial and offensive conduct of the president in foreign meetings and his encounters with Filipinos working abroad, satisfied to follow the trending subjects in social media that can capture more audience with catchy and colorful visuals and headlines.


Is it then cluelessness or arrogance that the Duterte administration is demonstrating in its curious approach to foreign affairs? While reporting official statements provides insights into the kind of government that we have, simply quoting these does not help the people understand the importance and impact of foreign policy. The press fell short in reaching out to sources other than the government who can question and critique the conduct of foreign policy. Documents, when available, need to be carefully scrutinized. Limiting reporting to citing government top brass, the media fails to contribute to greater public understanding of the country’s diplomatic objectives. It is difficult for a small country to conduct foreign policy that really matters to the ordinary Filipino. Stomach issues — poverty, inflation and unemployment — still trump national sovereignty and territorial integrity as matters of public concern. But recent developments have brought some issues closer to the gut. The lack of trust in China has been duly observed. Duterte’s dramatic rhetoric to distance himself from the US has not been entirely welcome, despite controversial issues on PH-US relations in the past. The media could have interpreted Duterte’s policy shift to give more thoughtful coverage to foreign affairs at this time. Instead, it has highlighted the controversial and offensive conduct of the president in foreign meetings and his encounters with Filipinos working abroad, satisfied to follow the trending subjects in social media that can capture more audience with catchy and colorful visuals and headlines. The coverage of foreign affairs has never been Philippine journalism’s strong suit. Diplomats are difficult sources, given their occupational custom for keeping their thoughts to themselves. But the parochialism of the Philippine press has not gone unnoticed. Editors justify this as following the natural interest of their readers. The attitude should catch up with the increasingly global perspectives of Filipinos who work abroad and who are connected to information resources all over the world through the internet. Given the China question, Filipino journalists assigned to foreign affairs should develop more skills, examine the issues and engage diplomatic sources with more knowledge about the subjects reflected in the news. A more vigilant media can help engender genuine patriotism and national pride in the country’s sovereignty — values so notably missing among the majority of Filipinos.