In this Nov. 13, 2017 photo, President Rodrigo Duterte joins the leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states and dialogue partners during the opening of the 31st ASEAN Summit and Related Summits at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in Pasay City. The dialogue partners include New Zealand, Timor-Leste, Republic of Korea, USA, Australia, India, China, and Japan.
Presidential photo/Albert Alcain
Great powers’ game: Implications for Duterte’s independent foreign policy
Renato Cruz De Castro ( - March 10, 2018 - 9:26am

(Originally published on March 9, 2018) In late September 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte announced that he would forge “new alliances” with China and Russia to cushion the impact of the possible withdrawal of US support to the Philippines. He planned to create a diplomatic/strategic cleavage between the Philippines and the US and pivot toward the Washington’s geo-strategic rivals — China and Russia.His foreign policy thrust involves developing and maintaining an independent and pro-active posture so he can adroitly balance the major powers in East Asia.   This move is to promote a more positive and conducive atmosphere in Philippine-China bilateral relations enabling both sides to embark on major infrastructure and investment projects, as well as other forms of cooperation to restore mutual trust and confidence.

Eventually, President Duterte adopted an appeasement policy on China based on his three things: the US will not come to the aid of the Philippines in case of an armed confrontation with China in the South China Sea, geographically speaking, the Philippines has no choice but to co-exist and even cooperate with an emergent China, and appeasing China has its rewards, in a possible agricultural market and as a provider of loans for infrastructure projects.  

President Duterte’s efforts to pursue an “independent foreign policy” happened at a time that China and the US were engaged in their normal great power competition. For Southeast Asia, the respective diplomatic maneuvers of each country to benefit economically and politically from the competition complicate such developments in US-China relations.

The US national security strategy and the national defense strategy

In his first year in office, US President Donald Trump found it necessary to reinvigorate US engagement in the Asia-Pacific to fulfill his campaign promise to “make America great again.”   Possessing the most powerful navy in the world and considered as the leading maritime trading nation, the US has maintained a significant economic, diplomatic and strategic presence in the region since the end of the Second World War. White House officials took a deep and serious examination of American strategic interests and engagement in East Asia — including at some of the policies it inherited from the Obama administration’s rebalancing strategy. 

On Dec. 18, 2017, Trump released the National Security Strategy (NSS) which provides the overview of the national security threats that confront the US and the blueprint on how this administration will address these threats.  In January 2018, the US Department of Defense issued the unclassified portion of the National Defense Strategy which shows the Pentagon’s strategic goals and capabilities will be directed to support the NSS objectives.  Both documents highlighted the strategic competition between the US versus Russia and China; consequently, making this 21stcentury great powers’ game as America’s primary national security challenge.   They advanced the idea that great power competition, not terrorism has become the central challenge to American national security interests.  These two official doctrines labeled China and Russia as revisionist states that want to shape the world consistent with their authoritarian values, and in the process, replace the free and open order that has enabled global security and prosperity since World War II.  They urged the US to begin prioritizing its long-term strategic competition with China and Russia.

The documents discussed US strategy on a regional basis, in particular how the erosion of US military advantage versus China and Russia could undermine America’s ability to deter aggression and coercion in key strategic regions such as the Indo-Pacific.  This has economic implications, for instance, as China will seek to expand the reach of its state-driven economic model even harness its huge economy to develop superior military technology, consequently overthrowing the current international system.

Militarily, China has deployed its growing capabilities in an effort to exert control over virtually all of the waters and resources off its eastern seaboard. In response, the NSS provides for the deployment of robust and powerful forward-deployed US forces, the build-up of America’s alliances and the need to help build its security partners’ naval capabilities. 

These developments will change mundane competition between Washington and Beijing into a dynamic geo-strategic rivalry as the US will vigorously counteract China’s growing economic and political influence in Southeast Asia.  This will make it more challenging for Southeast Asian states to find the delicate balance in their relations to both the US and China. Eventually, they will be forced to make a tough and potentially dangerous binary choices —alignment with one of the two states. 

Implications for an independent foreign policy

Officials of the current administration have consistently articulated Duterte’s rhetoric of an independent foreign policy. Malacañang announced that Manila does not want to be part of the latest spat between Beijing and Washington. Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque declared that “We do not wish to be part of a US-China intramural. The United States can take care of its interest.”  He insisted that the country follows an independent foreign policy, and so “the problem of America today is no longer the problem of the Philippines.”

For his part, Duterte defended China’s construction of military structures on the land features it occupies in the South China Sea.  He admitted that China is building military bases in the West Philippine Sea but argued that China will not use such military assets against the Philippines but for “those who the Chinese think would destroy them and that is America.”  In a recent forum in Manila, a ranking diplomatic official maintained that “the Philippines will remain neutral as the strategic rivalry between the United States and China intensifies.”  Filipinos, he said, “don’t want to be the sacrificial lamb in their strategic rivalry.”

Such statements from key officials are viewed in Washington (and in other Western capitals) as signals of the Philippines’ defection from the liberal international order into the hostile camp of China and Russia.  In the face of the increasing geo-strategic rivalry between the two major powers, any defection to the other side will be seen by each player as a zero-sum game — I win, you lose.

During the Cold War, both the US and the Soviet Union destabilized and/or overthrew allied or client states that foolishly put themselves in the middle of a zero-sum game.  The US did this in Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, Chile and Grenada. The Soviet Union did the same in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.  The Duterte administration’s efforts to pursue an independent foreign policy must be played with caution, prudence and foresight.  If not, it might experience the tragic reality of international politics when “the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.”


Renato Cruz De Castro is a trustee of think tank Stratbase ADR Institute, a partner of

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