COVID-19 and Duterte’s Independent Foreign Policy
Updated: Feb 11, 2021
Photo Source: Wikimedia
COVID-19 is not necessarily a geopolitical event but its transborder and transnational scope inevitably affected how the Philippines – and the whole world – looks at security issues. Considered as a non-traditional threat in the field of International Relations, the virus forced borders to be closed and limited the abilities of international organizations, friendly states, and allied countries to render assistance. States were left to fend for their own survival – some even responding to the non-traditional security threat with traditional security measures.
Middle-power states, like the Philippines, do not have the luxury of choosing to prioritize between domestic and foreign concerns. These states have to deal with the global health crisis that is the coronavirus, the rippling geopolitical changes in great power competition in the region, and the pressures of traditional security and defense concerns. Before the pandemic, the Duterte administration’s security relations toward the US had drastically taken a back seat in efforts to maximize economic returns from normalized ties with China. Adding COVID-19 into the fray, however, has made the Philippines’ conduct of foreign policy more complex.
Early in his term and under the banner of an “independent foreign policy,” Duterte has moved away from his predecessor’s balancing strategy and shifted the Philippines closer to China to benefit in its economic boom, rather than be the subject of its upsets. Duterte has outright announced his ‘Pivot to China,’ how much he needs the rising economic giant, and his fondness for Chinese President Xi Jinping on multiple occasions. Fearful that the Philippines might be left out from the Belt and Road Initiative, the Duterte administration pursued what some analysts have called a shift in alignment to prevent economic losses from strained bilateral relations with China. China has pledged US$9 billion in order to fund infrastructure projects under the “Build, Build, Build” program. Some notable projects are the Kaliwa Dam, Chico River pump irrigation, Panay-Guimaras islands bridge in the central Philippines, and a multi-billion expressway in Duterte’s home city of Davao. It is worth mentioning that despite the hefty pledge, China has yet to fully deliver on its promises.
Due to the Duterte administration’s China policy, the Philippines has not been able to utilize the decisions awarded by the Arbitral Tribunal constituted under Annex VII of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which invalidated China’s historic claims over the South China Sea. The Philippine government has also backtracked on several defense cooperation activities with the United States. In 2017, the administration announced the cancellation of Balikatan Exercises because such war games displeased Beijing. The Balikatan Exercises continued the following years but had shifted its focus towards humanitarian assistance and disaster response. More recently, President Duterte moved to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), and is threatening to do the same for the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).
Despite the downturn of security relations, the United States continues to maintain cordial relations with its Southeast Asian ally. The Philippines has received US$22 million from the US as an aid to its COVID response strategy through the US Agency of International Development (USAID) signalling the commitment to assist the Philippines in its time of need.
Tagged as “The Land of COVID-19” and Southeast Asia’s worst affected country, the Philippine government has been heavily criticized for being unable to contain the spread of the virus in the country early on. Despite the knowledge and warnings about the virus, the government prioritized the feelings of the Chinese government over the health and safety of its citizens when it delayed the travel ban for those coming from China. Multiple long lockdowns have since then taken effect throughout the country. The numbers of active cases still keep on rising and the healthcare systems and workers that could help control the spread were overwhelmed and dwindling.
China has also stepped up its efforts by providing help to the Philippines through medical equipment such as 130 ventilators, and 150 sets of breathing aid devices to support the severe COVID-19 patients. It has also donated more than 250,000 test kits, 1.87 million surgical masks, and personal protective equipment among others, in addition to donations by China's local governments, enterprises, and civil groups. Being a priority country for a vaccine may be President Duterte’s only palliative from facing public backlash.
The Philippine economy continues to suffer as the pandemic persists. Lengthy and strict lockdowns have taken a severe toll on small to medium businesses. From being one of Asia's fastest growing economies before the pandemic, the country is now in recession for the first time in 29 years. The International Monetary Fund lowered the Philippines’ GDP growth projections for 2020 to -3.6 percent from 5.9 percent in 2019.
For its pandemic response, the Philippines has acquired P386.6 billion in loans, grants, and bonds issuances. The total amount of US$7.73 billion in loans is scheduled to be repaid until 2049. The loans are expected to fuel the needs of the country’s healthcare system, while a standby fund of P10 billion will fund the government's purchase of COVID-19 vaccines. The Philippines is currently in talks with Russia, China, Australia, and the United States for the potential supply of COVID-19 vaccines. P165 billion is also being allotted for stimulus packages to expand healthcare and help businesses as the pandemic continues to plunge the economy into recession. However, there is an emerging concern on the long-term consequences of such stimulus packages that may result in larger fiscal deficits and increased government debt. As one of the countries that were already depending on China for infrastructure and other development needs, the Philippines is likely to need more of China’s financial help as the economic impact of the virus weighs heavily on the region.
President Duterte’s statements and policies before the pandemic proves that his administration holds the US-China strategic competition in a dichotomous manner. To do so is basically a trap. Strategic thinking must transcend dichotomies – of having to choose between the US and China; between economic prosperity and territorial security; asserting sovereignty and declaring war. Strategic relations need not be exclusive to a single country benefactor.
Going beyond dichotomies would give the Philippines more room for cooperation and dialogue. It is important for the Philippines to understand that various partnerships have various utilities for different purposes. It is possible for the Philippines to foster deeper engagements with the US and China in that certain sectors, issues, and priorities are privileged. Engaging with China may be done in purely economic terms to retain the fluidity in existing, as well as in future supply chain arrangements. Engaging with the US, on the other hand, may be done along economic and security terms, owing much to the shared history and close bilateral ties between the two countries. Issues, priorities, and policies must, at all cost, foster cooperation in all countries concerned and must not be favorable to one, but predatory to the other.
Following Duterte’s personal preference to prioritize warmer ties with China, the late formulation and implementation of responses to crises have catastrophic consequences. The same applies to national defense. On another front, while incumbent officials may antagonistically view the security arrangements with the US for its contentious legislative history, scrapping quintessential security agreements – like the Mutual Defense Treaty, the Visiting Forces Agreement, and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement – would be detrimental to the Philippines. While foregoing the traditional alliance with the US may be seen as a step away from path dependence, the billions of dollars that the Philippine Government borrowed to sustain its lockdown implementations, as well as its future security infrastructure needs, may increase the country’s debt figures. While self-reliance is a welcome idea in strategic security planning, the Philippines must be ready to compensate for the loss of US deterrence and assistance, while remaining steadfast in addressing issues brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, the maritime issue of the South China Sea disputes, and its internal security skirmishes with violent state and non-state actors.
The impact of COVID-19 on the Philippines’ conduct of foreign policy is tempered by external and internal developments. It is important for the Philippines and the strategic and defense sectors to refrain from dichotomous mindsets, to ensure the securitization of national concerns over partisan biases for personal gain, and to ensure recommitment to old alliances while leaving room for new partnerships and cooperative measures with other countries. The transnational feature of the coronavirus also prompts the Philippines to be more open in moving towards and forward with other like-minded states, such as members of the ASEAN, in coming up cooperative with measures in this time of great upheaval.
*This essay is a condensed version of a paper commissioned by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Philippine Office, whose support is gratefully recognized.
Florence Principe Gamboa is a Senior Associate at the Amador Research Services. She is also Managing Editor and Coordinator of the Philippine Strategic Forum. She obtained her Master's degree in International Studies from the University of the Philippines Diliman. Prior to ARS and PSF, she has published her research and worked on Track Two diplomacy at Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress.
Deryk Baladjay is Senior Associate and Research Coordinator at the Amador Research Services and part-time Research Assistant at the Ateneo School of Government. He is an MA degree holder in International Studies major in Asian Studies from the De La Salle University-Manila. His research and policy interests are in security, conflict and peace studies in and around East and Southeast Asia.
Julio S. Amador III is CEO and Founder of the Amador Research Services. He was a former government official specializing in foreign policy and national security. He lectures in different professional schools and serves as resource person on international issues. He was a Fulbright scholar at Syracuse University where he earned his master’s degree in International Relations and a certificate in security studies. He was also a member of the inaugural cohort of the KAS Network of Young Asian Security Experts.