A Shift Towards China? - How Philippine Foreign Policy Detached from Systemic and Domestic Pressures

Amanda Brinkløv Jensen & Rébin Ahmad

Studenteropgave: Kandidatprojekt


After the election of Rodrigo Duterte in 2016 the Philippines have developed a markedly different foreign policy rhetoric. The United States, as former colonial power, and current ally are shunned and both China and Russia are approached. Duterte even went as far as to set aside a ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in favor of Philippine claims over those of China, in a case his predecessor had filed over the Chinese nine-dash line in the South China Sea. Furthermore, Duterte proclaimed common military exercises with the U.S. would end and the Philippines would look for new security partners. Yet the exercises continue, and martial cooperation is expanded under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. At the same time the economic benefits Duterte claimed China could bring, have failed to materialize and China continues its military build-up in in the conflict West Philippine Sea. Ultimately the Philippines are not responding as expected to current systemic pressures.

This thesis provides an analysis of the shift in the Philippines foreign policy from assertive balancing under President Benigno Aquino, to accommodation/non-balancing under President Duterte. The paradox behavior of the Philippines is discussed within a neoclassical realist framework. It analyses systemic factors found within individual perceptions, the strategic culture, state society relations, and domestic institutions. In order to achieve insight into the elite perceptions, interviews have been conducted with important member of the Filipino political elite and other relevant actors and experts on the topic.

The perceptions held by Duterte are generally shaped by his perceptions of the systemic pressures in the region and negative interactions with the U.S.. Duterte believe the potential danger of a Chinese annexation of Philippine territory, can no longer be contained with American aid, but must be reduced by developing amiable ties. Yet others within the government, e.g. defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana, belong to the opposite camp, earning the Duterte government the potluck label. In order to achieve insight into the elite perceptions, interviews have been conducted with important member of the Filipino political elite and other relevant actors and experts on the topic.

The relative novelty of Duterte’s thinking in Manila becomes even clearer upon the examination of the strategic culture. Generations of Filipino policy makers have assumed the U.S. would shield the Philippines from external threats and the proximity of China is a threat. The Filipino civil society also expresses this view in polls. Duterte’s ability to retain his popularity, despite such misgivings, is linked to the low importance foreign policy, relative to domestic politics. Furthermore, popular contention is limited by the dominant role of the upper class, that is to a large degree attached to Duterte’s coalition.

The inability of Duterte to make good on statements vis a vis the military, and secretary Lorenzana’s liberty to contradict the President, are linked to the institutional relations of the presidency, Filipino parties, and the military. The presidency’s control of government funds exercises strong influence on the parties, that maintain clientelist networks. The clientelist networks play a key role in exercising social control and elections. The military on the other hand has a historical tendency to get involved in politics, through coups, but higher ranking military personal requires political approval for promotions. Thus, all key institutions are mutually dependent. This results in coalitions, for protection and financial benefit, but does not translate into elite agreement on foreign policy.

In conclusion the thesis finds the Philippine’s change in foreign policy is linked to domestic variables. A lack of consensus on the foreign policy is found between Duterte and important actors within the Filipino political elite and Filipino civil society. This creates a foreign policy of non-balancing, which is the result of contradictory tendencies for both bandwagoning with and balancing against China within the current government, and a domestic context that permits them to coexist.

UddannelserGlobal Studies, (Bachelor/kandidatuddannelse) Kandidat
Udgivelsesdato1 jun. 2018
Antal sider113
VejledereGorm Rye Olsen


  • South China Sea
  • West Philippine Sea
  • Philippines
  • Duterte
  • Foreign Policy
  • Neoclassical Realism
  • China
  • USA
  • Territorial Conflict
  • Politics in the Philippines
  • Independent Foreign Policy