The Paucity of President Duterte’s Logic on Interstate alliances


President Rodrigo Roa Duterte has been quoted by the Philippine Daily Inquirer as having said that if the Philippines would not stand on its own feet, then Filipinos have no business running a Republic.  “We can be a territory of the Americans or we can be a province of China.”[1] Duterte’s latest remark was his response to the furor created by his decision to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States. 

It is difficult to ascertain where Mr. Duterte is really coming from. Choosing which country which we will ally with does not necessarily lead to us sacrificing our sovereignty. Alliances are not corporate mergers where the bigger firm subsumes the smaller one. Alliances are based on mutuality of interests, and it does not at all, affect our status as a state.

For decades already, we have not been made to choose whether to be a state of the US or a province of China. We are what Immanuel Wallerstein describe as part of the periphery of Great Powers and as one of those weaker states, we need either to bandwagon or take part in balancing power in the region.

Is there an ongoing concern that our foreign policy direction is being influenced by the Americans just because this Great Power is an ally? Can we call our Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) as “dependence” when the very description of this treaty speaks of mutuality? This treaty came about after both the Philippines and the United States found themselves similarly situated during the era of the Cold War. The prevailing doctrine in those times spoke of alliance building among states to guard them from possible encroachments posed by the emerging Communist Power that was Russia and China. Back then, the world was bipolar, with two dominant powers espousing two different and often conflicting views about international politics. 

Mr. Duterte would argue that we are no longer living in that state and the time has come for us to pursue independence in terms of our conduct before the international system. Let me ask Mr. Duterte then—at what point did we really conduct ourselves as dependents of the United States? Many, Duterte would probably say. Our record as a member of the United Nations speak for itself. Many times had we voted alongside the United States in matters of global importance. My second question for Mr. Duterte— so what if we did? 

Using Mr. Duterte’s logic, the rest of the 130 or so member states of the UN which voted in similar fashion are also considered, in his mind, dependents of the US? When the Philippines deployed its own troops in North Korea and Vietnam, Mr. Duterte would proudly claim, those were consistent with US strategic interests in the Pacific. Not necessarily, Mr. President. When we deployed our troops there, we were acting based on our own strategic defense interests. At that time, the threat of Communism was rising, and it is in the best interests of the Philippines that it joins other states in repulsion or repudiation of such an ungodly ideology. 

What the Philippines and this great power have is what we call mutuality of interests. Mutuality does not necessarily lead to dependence. However, it may actually create interdependence, with its extent depending on the interests of the participating states. 

First, it does not follow that, by having a strategic defense cooperation with a great Power, it already shows weakness or proof of interdependency or what others call “neo-colonialism” on the part of the weaker state. Alliances are regular features of the international system. Weak states such as ours, either resort to balancing or bandwagoning (Walt) as our way of surviving in what Realist described as an anarchical international system. Alliances are basically there to provide psychological comfort to militarily weak states that at no instance will great powers use their militaries to invade or cause war against weaker states. It does not follow that states which elect to ally with a great Power already subsumed their domestic interests with those of the stronger state or has allowed the stronger state to exert their interests over ours. 

We are militarily weaker compared with our Southeast Asian neighbours yet we are entirely and formally not dependent on anyone for our territorial defense. We have our own military which operates not on the dictates of the U.S. State department but of our own Defense secretary. We have been independent of US policy control since the Americans granted us independence. 

Obviously, when a state enters into a cooperative state with other, both states must agree on one particular system which would explain the nature of the relationship. Since the United States had been the country’s greatest ally since World War two, and being a former colony, the system which our Armed Forces of the Philippines use basically mirrors that of the former colonialist power, unless otherwise, we decided from the very founding of the present Republic that we would assume a different system. 

Aside from defining the relationship, states under alliance with others, must have agreed on the mutuality of their strategic interests. The US and the Philippines face the same threat—rising China which for the past few years, had been expanding their territories by occupying the West Philippine sea. The only reason which restrains China in fully occupying the rest of the West Philippine sea is the perception of our strong strategic partnership with its enemy, the US. Without US presence in the Philippines, this will fully expose us to more threats

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