File photo shows President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinse President Xi Jinping.
The STAR/Krizjohn Rosales, File photo
Commentary: The power of fear in Philippine foreign policy
Renato Cruz De Castro ( - June 1, 2019 - 3:13pm

Fear is one of the most intense and pervasive human emotions.

In his account of the 27-year long Peloponnesian War, Thucydides discussed how fear affected the behavior of the ancient Greek city-states based on his observation of the protracted and devastating war between Athens and Sparta. He stressed the power of fear in international relations when he wrote that it was the “growth of Athenian power, which terrified the Lacedaemonians and forced them into war.”

The Athenian general turned historian identified the underlying cause of the war as mutual fear triggered by the rapid change in the balance of power between the two rival Greek city-states. The rapid rise of Athenian naval power, the increase in the number of its colonies, and its decision to build a wall around the city shocked Sparta as the established land power in ancient Greece.

As Athenian power increased, Sparta began to see its former ally as unreasonable, ungrateful, and threatening to the existing order that had provided security to the Greek city-states after their long war against a common foe, the Persian Empire.

The power of fear is apparent in how President Rodrigo Duterte has conducted his country’s foreign policy in the last three years. He has undone former President Benigno Aquino III’s geo-political agenda of challenging China’s maritime expansion in the South China Sea.

This is because he is fearful that the country’s only formal treaty ally, the US, would not fully support the Philippines against China in the South China Sea dispute. He thinks that the only viable option for the Philippines is to foster economic interdependence with China. This would likely reduce the chances of an armed confrontation between these two claimant states in the South China Sea.

Fear of being left out from the BRI

Duterte is determined to take advantage of China’s emergence as a major economic power through the latter’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). He conducts a calibrated foreign policy characterized by gravitating toward to China while at the same time creating a wide diplomatic and strategic cleavage between the Philippines and the U.S.

He also declared that he is open to direct bilateral negotiations with China and that, echoing Beijing’s position, the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration award to the Philippines as a bilateral issue, not a concern for the regional bloc Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

His foreign policy agenda involves developing and maintaining an independent and pro-active posture so he can adroitly balance the major powers in East Asia. This is aimed at creating a more positive and conducive atmosphere in Philippine-China bilateral relations that can allow both sides to embark on major infrastructure and investment projects, as well as other forms of cooperation to restore mutual trust and confidence.

He is resigned to heightened Chinese island-building activities in the South China Sea. His administration has adopted Beijing’s official line “that after several years of disruption caused mainly by "non-regional countries" (Japan and the US), the South China Sea has calmed with China and Southeast Asian countries agreeing to peacefully resolve [their] disputes.

In late 2016, the Duterte administration declared its desire totransform the Philippines’ confrontational foreign policy on China, with Duterte noting that the country was not included as a BRI partner country precisely because of the South China Sea dispute. He believes that the Philippines should be included in China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Project as he sought Chinese investments for infrastructure development in the Philippines.

Key administration officials observed that China has already helped build infrastructure in the poor regions of Southeast Asia with billions of dollars committed to anything from a railway in Laos to Cambodia’s first oil refinery. They are aware that the Philippines has struggled against its more prosperous Southeast Asian neighbors to compete for foreign investments primarily because of the country’s lack of infrastructure.

Duterte and his economic advisers saw how Chinese investments boosted infrastructure development in Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. They also observed that the BRI plans for increased connectivity among Southeast Asian countries through roads, railways, sea routes, airways, and the internet to promote unimpeded trade, policy-coordination, and financial integration.

However, Duterte was afraid that the Philippines would not be able to avail of the BRI’s economic benefits if it challenges China’s expansionist agenda in the South China Sea. After he became president in 2016, he reversed his predecessor’s South China Sea policy by affecting positive improvements to Philippine-China relations through an appeasement policy. 

The power of fear in Philippine foreign policy

The power of fear is evident in the two administrations’ foreign policies on China. On the one hand, then President Aquino was concerned about the Chinese naval threat to the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and strategic leverage as a maritime nation in the light of China’s maritime expansion.

On the other hand, Duterte was afraid that the US would not assist the Philippines as it has maintained an ambiguous position in the South China Sea dispute, in particular, and China’s emergence as a major power, in general. More importantly, he was afraid that if the Philippines continues to pursue a balancing policy on China, the country would not be able to avail of BRI-related investments and aid. 

This drove him to pursue an appeasement policy characterized by strategically distancing the Philippines from the U.S. and gravitating closer to China. He has also sidelined the 12 July UNCLOS award to the Philippines and has turned a blind eye to the destruction of the coral reefs by huge Chinese fishing fleets in several of the land features within the country’s EEZ.

The Duterte administration is convinced that an appeasement policy on China is worth pursuing because its makes the Philippines a beneficiary of Chinese economic largesse and this would prevent conflict between the Philippines and the expansionist power. 

Dr. Renato Cruz De Castro is the trustee and convenor of the National Security and East Asian Affairs Program of Stratbase ADR Institute, a partner of

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