The Duterte administration has stressed the independent nature of its foreign policy. Apparently, this has been equated to freedom from foreign criticism.
Two weeks ago, the Duterte administration reversed the suspension of all concessionary landing negotiations with the 18 countries that had signed a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution to review President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody “war on drugs.” The suspension of the negotiations was announced seven months ago. The signatories include Australia, Spain and the United Kingdom– some of the country’s biggest aid donors.
The suspension was ordered by the president and justified as an example of his administration’s “independent foreign policy.” The recent reversal occurred without any noticeable change of behaviour by the 18 signatories, and was justified as a way to enhance funding options for the administration’s ambitious infrastructure program.
The August 2019 decision to suspend the negotiations is a clear example of President Duterte’s approach to foreign policy. It was a sudden, personal reaction to external criticism of his signature domestic policy. It was an overreaction that reduced the Philippines’ constructive international engagement. Understandably, the decision was queried by local experts, legislators and members of the government as detrimental to the national interest.
The most consequential and controversial example of this approach is Duterte’s February 2020 decision to withdraw the Philippines from the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States
The March 2019 decision to withdraw the Philippines from the International Criminal Court, after the Court initiated a preliminary review of a case filed against Duterte’s “war on drugs,” is another example of this approach. President Duterte appears to equate independence in foreign policy as independence from foreign criticism.
The most consequential and controversial example of this approach is Duterte’s February 2020 decision to withdraw the Philippines from the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States. The decision was made after Senator Ronald de la Rosa’s visa to the USA was cancelled due to his leading role in the war on drugs. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana stated that the Philippines will cease to have military exercises with its only ally once the 180-day grace period from the receipt of the withdrawal order has passed. This eventuality would severely undercut Philippine security and complicate the stabilising security presence in Southeast Asia that the United States provides.
The unexpected reversal of the suspension order against the 18 signatories is a positive sign that Duterte can reconsider his foreign policy decisions. He has about five months to do the same thing with his Visiting Forces Agreement decision. The security of Southeast Asia – if not the wider Asia-Pacific – would benefit from a change of Duterte’s mind.
Malcolm Cook was previously Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Editor at Fulcrum.