The Philippines’ erratic president, Rodrigo Duterte appears to be playing an increasingly difficult game of “balance the Dragon and the Eagle,” making military moves to please both the U.S. and China. The recent decision by Duterte banning his country’s naval forces from joining in naval exercises with the U.S. and others in the South China Sea (SCS), has according to Asia Times, provoked “an uproar across the country, and is seen as yet another Duterte concession to Beijing.”
However, adds Asia Times, on the flip side, Duterte apparently did not oppose sending an expanded Filipino naval contingent to the biennial Rim of the Pacific Exercise 2020 (RIMPAC20) in Honolulu, Hawaii in late August. The Philippines will reportedly send its newly-commissioned missile-frigate BRP Jose Rizal (FF-150) to RIMPAC20 – the world’s largest U.S.-led international warfare exercise.
Still, the surprise announcement by Duterte to ban the Philippines Navy from exercises in the SCS comes just weeks after the Philippine government called on China to comply with The Hague’s July 2016 arbitration ruling in Manila’s favor, echoing the tough new U.S. line on China’s illegal South China Sea claims.
The pro-Beijing moves to cancel the navy’s participation in the SCS exercises also follow the positive June decision by Duterte to suspend his decision to terminate a key defense pact with the United States, at least temporarily. At the time, Military Times reported that that the Philippines is delaying its decision to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement by at least six months.
In an earlier surprise announcement, Duterte’s administration had notified the U.S. government in February, that it intended to abrogate the 1998 agreement, “which allows the entry of large numbers of American forces for joint combat training with Filipino troops and lays down the legal terms for their temporary stay,” reported Military Times.
This was seen as a huge blow to long-standing U.S.-Filipino military relations, and a gift to Beijing.
Reversing himself, at least temporarily, has increased the possibility of now maintaining the Agreement with the U.S., but creates turmoil in the meantime, and is seen by some as just as more “balancing” optics.
“The upshot for the Philippines,” notes Asia Times, is a “double-balancing” strategy where Duterte’s government is bent on balancing its relations with both the U.S. and China, while not appearing to be too pro-Beijing.
How long the Philippines will be able to sustain this balancing act in the face of increasing Chinese aggression, is yet to be seen.