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PDU30 Unang Taon: The new foreign relations

Since President Rodrigo Duterte assumed the presidency a year ago, he has repeatedly reiterated his stance of pursuing a more independent foreign policy. For the President, this means closer economic ties with China and Russia, and greater independence from the United States, the Philippines long-time ally.

“So I come here and say, I am not asking for free but if I could–China would find in his heart to help us in our needs, then we will remember you for all time. And in the shifting of political and cultural thing, America has lost it. I mean, I realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines, and Russia. It’s the only way,” Duterte said in his speech during the Philippines-China Trade and Investment Forum in Beijing in October last year.

But the Philippine government’s request for assistance from the US as its troops battle Islamic State-allied militants in Marawi City is an indication that Duterte on his own cannot just extricate the country from its deep-seated ties with America. Not just yet, anyway.

The US Embassy said in a statement on June 10 that, at the request of the Philippine government, US special operations forces are assisting the AFP in fighting rebels belonging to the Maute Group. The Armed Forces of the Philippines said its American counterparts are providing technical assistance to quell the siege that began on May 23.

“Nagpapasalamat lang rin ako nandiyan na rin. It could save lives,” Duterte said on June 11, even as he pointed out that he was not the one who approached the US government to ask for help.

‘Diversified’ foreign relations

GMA News resident political analyst Richard Heydarian said Duterte’s foreign policy has been “pro-active” and “productive” so far.

“Yung epekto ng ginagawa niya ay dina-diversify niya yung ating foreign relations. Kung marami kang mga partners, hindi lang yung mga dati mong mga partners, kung marami kang mga options, yung room for maneuver mo, mas malaki. Yun yung epekto ng ginawa ni Pangulong Duterte,” Heydarian said.

Among the 18 countries or territories Duterte visited during his first year as president, China stands out with the remarkable number of pledges, economic agreements, financial assistance and business deals given to the Philippines.

Based on Philippine Statistics Authority data, China was the Philippines’ second largest trading partner in 2015, next to Japan. Total two-way trade between the two countries for that year amounted to $17.646 billion or almost 14 percent of total trade, PSA figures say.

During the President’s four-day state visit to China on October 18 to 21, 2016, 13 economic agreements were signed and $24 billion in public financing and private business deals were pledged, said Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez on October 21. China also lifted its travel advisory, issued in 2014, warning its citizens to avoid travelling to the Philippines.

Ahead of Duterte’s visit, China also lifted its ban on the import of bananas coming from the Philippines

The following month, on November 29, Duterte inaugurated the Drug Abuse Treatment and Rehabilitation Center in Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija, along with Chinese tycoon Huang Rulun.

The P1.4-billion facility was donated by Huang, who met Duterte during his state visit in Beijing.  It is the first large-scale drug rehabilitation center in the country which can accommodate 10,000 people.

On June 27, Malacañang announced that the Chinese government has donated P15 million for the relief and rehabilitation efforts for Marawi City.

On June 28, Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua turned over to Duterte P590 million worth of rifles and ammunition, which will be sent to government troops fighting members of the Maute Group in Marawi City. Zhao said the second batch of the military aid package will be delivered in the next months.


13 economic agreements signed during Duterte’s state visit to China on October 18-21, 2016
$24 billion in pledges (public financing and private business deals) received during Duterte’s state visit to China on October 18-21, 2016
P1.4-billion Drug Abuse Treatment and Rehabilitation Center in Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija, donated by Chinese businessman Huang Rulun and inaugurated on November 29, 2016
P15-million donation for Marawi City rehabilitation presented by Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua to Duterte on June 27, 2017
P590-million military aid package turned over by Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua to Duterte on June 28, 2017



While there is nothing wrong with strengthening ties with China, Heydarian said the country’s interest should be given utmost importance, especially on the issue of disputed waters in the South China Sea.

Heydarian noted that, despite the aid, the Philippines has yet to benefit fully from its good relations with China.

He cited China’s continued construction of military facilities on waters claimed by the Philippines.

“Hindi pa rin natin nakuha yung mga gusto nating makuha sa China. Pag nakita mo yung Panatag Shoal, may mga report pa rin from media na hina-harass pa rin yung ating mga mangingisda. Hindi pa rin natin ma-access yung loob ng Panatag Shoal,” Heydarian said.

“Dapat realistic din tayo sa expectation natin kasi ang katotohanan dito tayo ang nagbibigay ng maraming concessions sa China,” he said.

The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled on July 12 last year that China has no legal basis to claim historic rights to resources to much of South China Sea.

A PCA arbitral tribunal also decided that Mischief (Panganiban) Reef, Second Thomas (Ayungin) Shoal and Reed (Recto) Bank lie within the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. China thus violated the sovereign rights of the Philippines when it interfered with local oil exploration, prohibited fishing and constructed artificial islands.

The tribunal also noted that China had violated its duty to respect the traditional fishing rights of Philippine fishermen by preventing access to Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal after 2012. China has consistently refused to abide by the ruling.

Duterte had been accused of downplaying the Philippines’ victory in the PCA. He did not mention the arbitration ruling in his statement as chairman of the 30th Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in April.

In his chairman statement, Duterte emphasized the importance of the implementation of the ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea to ease tensions in the disputed waters. ASEAN and China senior officials completed the draft code of conduct framework on May 18.

Later, after his second visit to China in May, Duterte said Chinese President Xi Jingping warned of war if the Philippines would insist on its claims in the West Philippine Sea. He said Xi, during bilateral talks on the sidelines of the Belt and Road Forum, made the warning after he said the Philippines intends to drill oil in the disputed area.

“Sinabi ko talaga harap-harapan: ‘That is ours and we intend to drill oil there.’ Wala nang palaboy-laboy. “If it’s yours, well that is your view, but my view is that I can drill the oil if there is some inside the bowels of the Earth because it is ours.’

“Sagot sa akin, ‘We’ll we are friends. We do not want to quarrel with you. We would want to maintain the present warm relationship. But if you force the issue, we will go to war,’” Duterte said in a speech before the national convention of the Philippine Coastguard Auxiliary in Davao City on May 19.

'Soft landing'

Cabinet officials have since played down Duterte’s statement, even as lawmakers chided the President for allowing the country to be threatened by China.

Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said the President is exercising caution about the issue but will deal with the issue in the proper time.

“Sinabi nga ng Pangulo, gusto niya ng soft landing. Isasantabi pansamantala yung mga isyu na ‘yan dahil napakarami po yung mga isyu ang dapat pag-usapan and in a relationship hindi po yun nakabase sa isang isyu lamang. Sabi nga ni Presidente, there will be a time na ilalabas niya yung isyung ‘yan ‘yung West Philippine Sea but not now,” Andanar said.

He said Duterte has been “very successful” in charting his independent foreign policy. He referred to billions of dollars in investments and pledges that will be central to the government’s Build! Build! Build! infrastructure development program.

“It’s a golden age of infrastructure pag nasimulan yung malaking infrastructure projects tulad ng railways sa Mindanao, railways papuntang Maynila, papuntang south mula Maynila,” Andanar said.

Data from the Presidential Communications Operations Office show that Duterte received a total of $36.8 billion in pledges and investments from seven countries he visited in his first year in office: China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Russia, and Thailand.

CHINA 13 government agreements $24 billion
business deals and public financing
JAPAN investment and aid package $9 billion
SAUDI ARABIA, BAHRAIN, AND QATAR investment deals $925 million
RUSSIA business-to-business deals $875 million
THAILAND investments from Charoen Pokphand (CP) Group $2 billion
TOTAL   $36.8 billion
Source: Presidential Communications Operations Office


Of these countries, Russia did not have any significant relationship with the Philippines before the Duterte presidency.

A Department of Trade and Industry press release noted that in 2015, Russia was the Philippines’ 31st trading partner (out of 223), 44th export market (out of 211), and 27th import supplier (out of 203).

Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas records show that from 1999 to the first semester of 2016, Philippine imports from Russia have been larger than exports, resulting in unfavorable balance of trade for the country.

The figures are expected to rise after Duterte met Russian President Vladimir Putin during his trip to Russia on May 23. But he had to cut short his visit as he declared martial law in Mindanao that same day following the violent clashes between government troops and members of the Maute group in Marawi City.

A Presidential Communications Office press release said $875 million worth of business-to-business deals were signed by the two countries. 

US, EU and UN

Within Duterte’s first year in office, there were no significant new deals yet with the US and the European Union, the Philippines’ traditional partners and, together with the United Nations, critics of Duterte’s war on drugs.

In various instances, Duterte launched verbal attacks against former United States President Barack Obama, former US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg, the UN and its special rapporteurs, and the EU.

The US government under Obama had expressed concern over the killings of suspected drug users and pushers in the Philippines. In September, Obama canceled a planned first meeting with Duterte on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Laos after the Philippine president called him “son of a whore.” Duterte later expressed regrets over his tirade.

In September, the European Parliament issued a resolution urging the Philippine government to “put an end to the current wave of extrajudicial executions and killings” and ensure respect for human rights in accordance with international standards and instruments ratified by the Philippines. The EP also encouraged Philippine authorities to launch an immediate investigation into the “extraordinarily high” numbers of suspects killed during police operations.

In March this year, the Parliament adopted a resolution calling for the immediate release of Senator Leila de Lima, Duterte’s staunch critic on extrajudicial killings.

Top trade partners

The US and EU are among the important trading partners of the Philippines.

In 2015, the United States ranked as the Philippines’ third largest trading partner, next to Japan and China, PSA data show.

BSP records also show that the US is the main source of overseas Filipino remittances, with more than $8.4 billion in 2015. Figures from the Commission on Filipinos Overseas show that about a third of Filipinos living abroad are in the US. There were more than 3.5 million Filipinos living and/or working in the US in 2013.

The US is the Philippines' second largest tourist market, next only to South Korea, Department of Tourism data say.

The Philippines also received millions of dollars in economic and military assistance from the US government every year. USAID data say the Philippines got $254 million in 2015.

Meanwhile, the EU is the Philippines’ fourth largest trading partner, PSA data show. Total two-way trade in 2015 amounted to $13.874 billion or almost 11 percent of total trade.

Germany was the country’s top trading partner among the EU-member countries with a total trade of $5.233 billion, equivalent to 37.7 percent of total EU trade, in 2015, PSA records say.

The Philippines has yet to experience harsh sanctions from these governments even as Duterte dared the US and EU governments in October to pull out their assistance to the Philippines.

In December, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, an independent US government foreign aid agency, deferred the grant of funding to the Philippines because of concerns on rule of law and civil liberties. In June, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez said the MCC is still planning to give the country fresh funding for development projects.

In March, an EU official warned that the Philippines could lose billions of dollars in trade deals if the judicial problems would persist like the reinstatement of death penalty, extrajudicial killings, and the proposal to lower the judicial responsibility age to nine years.

Scaled-down relations

But it remained a warning until now. It was Duterte who actually refused financial assistance. In May, the Philippine government told the European Union that it will no longer accept new aid from the bloc.

EU Ambassador to the Philippines Franz Jessen said the Philippines will forego 250 million euros or P13.8 billion worth of grants, a big chunk of which was allocated to support Muslim communities in Mindanao.

Malacañang later clarified that the Philippines was not rejecting all grants from the EU, only those that comes with conditions that may interfere with the country’s internal affairs.

In September, Duterte stopped joint navy patrols with the US in the South China Sea. In November, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced that two annual Philippine-US drills, the Philippine Amphibious Landing Exercise and Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training, will be scrapped.

But Duterte backed down on his threat to scrap this year's Balikatan exercises. The annual drill between American and Filipino soldiers was held in May. But instead of joint drills on external defense and maritime security, Balikatan 2017 focused on humanitarian assistance and disaster response, as well as combating terrorism.

Ties were not severed, after all.

In June, Jessen told reporters that the Philippine government and the EU are discussing about possible development assistance on various sectors including the peace process in Mindanao, job creation, promotion of sustainable energy and electrification of rural areas.

The European Union, with its partner Fondation Suisse de Desminage, is also conducting mines and unexploded ordnance risk education for civilians displaced in the Marawi City siege in coordination with the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

US dependence

Heydarian said the Philippine military’s request for assistance from its American counterpart shows that the US is still an indispensable ally.

“Ang nakita natin dito ay dahil sa bakbakan sa Marawi, mukhang yung ating dependence sa Amerika ay bumabalik na ulit,” Heydarian said. Nag-provide sila ng high-grade intelligence, training, technical assistance… Pagdating sa Mindanao, kailangan ulit natin ng US,” he said.

Duterte’s relationship with President Donald Trump appears to be warmer than that with Obama.

Duterte said then President-elect Trump had wished him success in his government’s drug war during their first phone conversation in December. In another phone call in late April, Trump invited Duterte to visit the White House.

Andanar said the relationship between the Philippines and the United States remains healthy.

“It’s a cozy relationship. Kita naman natin yung Mutual Defense Treaty natin ay nasusunod pa rin. Ang bansang Amerika ay tumutulong sa ating mga war against extremism, war against ISIS so ito po’y isang patunay na our relationship with the United States is healthy,” Andanar said.