Filipino policy has changed drastically in the last few years, with ramifications for Southeast Asian geopolitics. President Rodrigo Duterte has launched a campaign to break up “oligarchies” in the Philippines’ economy, stripped journalists critical of his policies of their licensing, and conceded to Chinese claims in the South China Sea. Duterte’s critics worry that if he isolates himself and the Philippines from the United States and traditional allies too much, China will replace them.
Duterte has defied traditional Filipino policy to pursue political goals. Instead of focusing on regional unity, Duterte has chosen to focus on social reforms that appease his base but also strengthen his authoritarian leadership style. A Filipino president solely pursuing his or her political agenda at the expense of regional stability has been uncommon since 1986, when Ferdinand Marcos left the Philippines amid popular discontent. Rodrigo Duterte has broken from the decades-long mold of Filipino leadership as part of a growing wave of populism extending even into Southeast Asia.
While there have been concerted efforts by the international community to promote democracy in the region, there are still few properly qualified and truly democratic leaders in Southeast Asia today, and few institutions to monitor governance in the area, with the notable exception of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). ASEAN has long encouraged economic cooperation and peace between an unlikely combination of nations, providing a buffer to China, but as the organization slips on promoting democracy, its power to limit Chinese influence decreases. Through ASEAN’s history, the Philippines has been one of the more reliable members to promote American national security interests in the region, but under Duterte, the Philippines is not as reliable as it once was.
President Duterte has repeatedly spoken of his worries about war with China. In his view, a war with the United States and its Southeast Asian allies against China would be devastating to the Philippines. By aligning the Philippines with China, Duterte believes he can avoid this kind of war. Duterte learned early on in his term that China is not afraid to threaten his country in retaliation for the Philippines’ encroachment into what the Chinese government views as its territory. In his State of the Nation Address (SONA) on July 27, Duterte said he is “inutile [and] cannot do anything” in response to China’s actions near the Spratly Islands. This means that the Philippines, a staunch ally of the United States and military power of Southeast Asia, will not defend its territories in vital shipping and naval areas. China will have access to naval bases and closer reach to smaller, more vulnerable countries it has already enticed to join in its Belt and Road Initiative.
While many countries were initially skeptical of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), others realized how desperately their economies needed to grow and joined with China on infrastructure projects. Concerns about debt to China always linger for countries receiving assistance from China, but overall the BRI has fostered more trust in China from these countries, thus fulfilling the purpose the BRI was created for. As Southeast Asian countries trust greater Chinese influence in their borders through infrastructure, they will trust greater Chinese influence in other areas, shutting out American influence in turn.
The Philippines is only the vanguard of turning away from the United States, and though attitudes about other countries sometimes take generations to change, other Southeast Asian countries are following quickly. Chinese infrastructure has strengthened Southeast Asian countries’ developing economies, and East Asia and Southeast Asia have a long history of interacting with each other, with most of those interactions in the post-World War II era being peaceful and economics-driven. While the threat of COVID-19 may affect sentiments toward China, the overall feeling among Southeast Asians is that China wants regional development and peace. National security fears are then not about a war caused by China as much as a war caused by the United States’ overzealous actions. It does not matter what the politics of each side are; Southeast Asia would suffer in any conflict scenario, so the region is choosing to side with whatever side it deems least likely to start such a conflict, and policy initiatives like the BRI have only strengthened this belief in China as a force for peace.
Since 2013, China has used the Belt and Road Initiative to increase connections with other countries, but these connections sometimes prove to be damaging in the long term. By October 2019, the BRI had impacted the lives of an estimated 4.6 billion people. The extreme downside of the BRI in developing countries is that the loans are sometimes far beyond the capacity of developing countries to pay. The Chinese government will sometimes intervene in this case to get something in return from debtor countries, such as a navy base in a strategic location, as Djibouti recently decided to allow. Southeast Asian countries saddled with COVID-19 expenses or lagging economies will soon have to make such concessions of national sovereignty.
If China gains naval control and political influence in Southeast Asia, the United States will lose them. In another scenario, if China’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and aggressive BRI policies are viewed unfavorably, the United States will have an opportunity to strengthen alliances and political relationships with Southeast Asian states and their leaders, including Duterte. This would be a great boost to American security in vital naval areas, something that has been decreasing over time. The risk of not strengthening military influence in naval areas is that instead of mostly allying with the United States, Southeast Asian states could bend to China’s will as they feel even farther from help or contact with the U.S. Many states, like the Philippines, realize that full maritime sovereignty is an impossibility. They will either have Chinese ships in their waters or American ships. For some, Chinese ships seem more peaceful.
There are historical roots to these impressions of China. Zheng He sailed the waters of Southeast Asia and North Africa in the 1400s to strengthen China’s economic ties and political standing in these countries, and the culture war only continues today. Just as control of the South China Sea was crucial to Chinese power in the past, it is inseparable from economic and political power today. The order of Asian powers is at risk from aggressive Chinese action in the South China Sea and pro-Chinese appeasement from leaders like Rodrigo Duterte. Populist policies have motivated Duterte to act the way he does, and weakened United States-ASEAN cohesion is the political penalty the United States will have to address.