The Philippines: In Between China And The United States

The last few weeks have seen many unexpected twists and turns on foreign policy from the Philipino president Rodrigo Duterte regarding the Philippines’ foreign policy orientation. At first, Duterte had seemed to indicate he would cooperate with the China and engage in bilateral talks. After the results of the South China Sea Arbitration in July, Duterte then back-peddled from his earlier stance and insisted that China should honour the terms of arbitration.[1] Yet, in another turn of events in August, Duterte sent the former Philipino president Fidel Ramos to China to restart negotiations. Ramos is remembered in China mostly for his efforts to improve Sino-Philipino relations during his term.[2] Meanwhile Duterte proceeded to call the American ambassador Philip Goldberg a “son of a whore” and openly said his relationship with American officials has been difficult.[3] Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, in which his government had essentially legalized vigilante justice, has also placed him in a difficult relationship with Western human rights groups.[4]

President Duterte’s seemingly contradictory actions may mark the return of Cold-War style politics to East Asia. During the Cold War, many of the smaller regional powers across the world, such as Nasser’s Egypt, Tito’s Yugoslavia, Congress India, and many others sought to balance their relationships between the superpowers and play them against each other to extract the maximum amount of subsidies and weapons from each side. This style of international politics declined following the Soviet Union’s fall that left the United States as the sole superpower. It is however making a resurgence in Southeast Asia, as China is seemingly on the rise and will remain a powerful player in the region for the foreseeable future.

Duterte’s international politics, of trying to play the old hegemon against the new rising star, while attempting to extract the most amount of benefits from both, is heavily reminiscent of the Cold War. Having rejected Chinese overtones and demands for the Philippines to drop the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision, Duterte has nevertheless remained cautious in sending a message of goodwill and offer of negotiations to China in the form of Fidel Ramos.[5] Meanwhile, by recognizing the results of the PCA arbitration, Duterte would persuade the United States to continue to supply the Philippines with weaponry and other forms of aid to induce the country to remain outside of China’s influence rather than writing off the Philippines as a lost cause.

However, such politics is like playing with fire. While these policies are often the only way the small states can survive in a world dominated by the superpowers, it also puts these countries on precarious footing. Witness Nasser’s failed wars in the 1956 Suez Crisis and 1967 Six-Day War to see how maneuvering between the superpowers can lead to conflict. This leads one to wonder whether Duterte would have more success, or like many of his predecessors in the unaligned movement during the Cold War, would go too far in antagonizing one or both of the parties. Having seemingly rejected China’s demand to drop the PCA decision, while also insulting the American ambassador and human rights groups, this seemingly leaves Duterte without much goodwill on either side and hampers his ability to manoeuver successfully in the region’s geopolitics.

Another danger is that governments can become too dependent on international aid. In this case, local government can become so dependent on international handouts as a result of playing the balance card that it has significantly replaced taxation as a major source of government revenue. Replacement of domestic taxation would decrease the likelihood of a healthy economy, therefore reducing incentives for economic investment and development. The over-dependence on foreign handouts has contributed to the collapse of the Yugoslav and Somalian regimes [6] when they ran into fiscal problems after their strategic importance waned in the aftermath of the Cold War. Given the Philippines’ already lagging development, dependence on external sources of money for government finance might become a hindrance to the country’s economic development, rather than an asset.





Chan, Melissa. “Philippine President Calls Us Ambassador ‘Gay Son of a Whore’.” Time, 2016-08-10 2016.

Gonzales, Yuji Vincent. “Duterte Won’t Trade Ph’s Territorial Rights to China—Us Senator.” Philippine Daily Inquirer, 2016-07-20 2016.

Knack, Stephen. “Aid Dependence and the Quality of Governance: Cross-Country Empirical Tests.” Southern Economic Journal 68, no. 2 (2001): 310-29.

“My Nationalism, and Don’t You Forget It.” The Economist, 2016-07-23 2016.

“Philippines: A Rights Agenda for President Duterte.” Human Rights Watch,

“Sa De Dian Ran Xin Dui Kang, Zhong Guo Neng Fou Tu Po Mei Ri Han Wei Du.” In Yi Hu Yi Xi Tan, 48:90. Hong Kong: Phoenix TV, 2016.


[1] “My Nationalism, and Don’t You Forget It,” The Economist, 2016-07-23 2016.

[2] “Sa De Dian Ran Xin Dui Kang, Zhong Guo Neng Fou Tu Po Mei Ri Han Wei Du,”  in Yi Hu Yi Xi Tan (Hong Kong: Phoenix TV, 2016).

[3] Melissa Chan, “Philippine President Calls Us Ambassador ‘Gay Son of a Whore’,” Time, 2016-08-10 2016.

[4] “Philippines: A Rights Agenda for President Duterte,” Human Rights Watch,

[5] Yuji Vincent Gonzales, “Duterte Won’t Trade Ph’s Territorial Rights to China—Us Senator,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, 2016-07-20 2016.

[6] Stephen Knack, “Aid Dependence and the Quality of Governance: Cross-Country Empirical Tests,” Southern Economic Journal 68, no. 2 (2001): 313.

Hanyu Huang


The Organization for World Peace