A View from Australia

The year 2016 marked the seventieth anniversary of formal diplomatic relations between Australia and the Philippines. It also heralded the election of Rodrigo Duterte as the Philippines’ 16th president. The new president has made numerous international headlines, both during the election campaign and since becoming his country’s head of state. As this article shows, Duterte’s propensity for tough talk and his hard-line domestic law enforcement practices have generated discomfort within Australia and complicated bilateral cooperation initiatives. Much more importantly, however, Duterte’s leadership appears to be triggering a reorientation of Philippine foreign policy that may have significant implications for the transforming regional order. Policymakers not only in Canberra, but also throughout the entire Asia Pacific, will now be watching the Philippines very closely. How Manila navigates between China and the United States, and how in turn the great powers respond, will say much about how regional power dynamics will unfold in the coming years. By watching the Philippines in the present, Australia may learn something about its own future.

From a macro perspective, Canberra and Manila continue to share a strong relationship and ought to have many reasons to cooperate in matters of foreign and security policy. To take one example, the two countries view the spread of Islamic extremism in Southeast Asia as a growing threat to their national security.1 Both countries also enjoy a mutual defense treaty with the United States and consider the presence of American forces in the Asia-Pacific region as a force for stability. Public opinion of the United States within each democracy is typically very positive.2

Equally, both countries are tracking the rise of China closely, not only because of China’s importance as an economic partner, but also because of the risks posed by mounting geopolitical tensions arising out of overlapping territorial claims and Beijing’s emerging great power rivalry with Washington. Both Australia and the Philippines want to see the region’s disputes resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law, and are generally supportive of the rules-based international order. Accordingly, Canberra and Manila participate enthusiastically in the many groupings, meetings, and forums that permeate the regional order. While neither country would likely be among the other’s most important bilateral relationships, given the similarity between their interests, one would expect to see the two countries on the same side of many of the region’s major issues and cooperating across a wide range of strategic and developmental issues.

Messy political realities can, however, sully such pristine theoretical expectations. The first time the Australian public likely heard of Rodrigo Duterte was after he made a “joke” during the presidential campaign about a female missionary who was held hostage, raped, and killed during the 1989 Davao hostage crisis, an event that took place while Duterte was the city’s mayor.

Given the joke was uttered by the campaign frontrunner less than a month out from the election, it drew international attention;3 but it received greater-than-usual scrutiny Down Under due to the fact that the murdered woman, Jacqueline Hamill, was an Australian citizen. Had the victim been from another country, one may wonder whether Australia’s ambassador in Manilla, Amanda Gorely, would have felt the imperative to tweet that “Rape and murder should never be joked about or trivialised. Violence against women and girls is unacceptable anytime, anywhere.4 While he was not specifically mentioned in the tweet and would later apologise for the joke,5 Duterte hit back forcefully, telling the ambassador to “shut up” and warning the Australian government to “stay out” of domestic politics. His supporters subsequently swamped the embassy’s Facebook page, forcing administrators to remove some comments and claim the right to moderate posts that were “discriminatory, hateful, or threatening.”6

The episode illustrates how easily personalities and domestic politics (and indeed, certain values) can potentially pose obstacles for international cooperation. Yes, Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop moved swiftly to diffuse any tension following Duterte’s election, offering her congratulations and vowing to work closely with the new administration, given that the two countries “share similar values and interests.”7 Nevertheless, the apparent distaste felt by many Australians following the incident has likely only heightened in the early months of Duterte’s presidency, in light of his controversial “war on drugs” under which thousands of Filipinos have been killed in police operations or by suspected vigilante “death squads.”8

From Canberra’s perspective, this hard-line approach to domestic law enforcement and its implications for the rule of law, political rights, and civil liberties, complicates bilateral cooperation initiatives. While the Australian government had earlier stressed its concerns about ongoing reports of human rights violations and urged Manila “to ensure the cessation of extrajudicial killings and offer all Filipino citizens their rights according to the country’s criminal justice system,”9 officials must have winced at the following headline which appeared in a November 2016 edition of the Sydney Morning Herald: “Australia providing training, support to Philippine police despite killing spree.” The article simply pointed out that ongoing training, support, and assistance is being provided by the Australian Federal Police to the Philippine National Police pursuant to a 2012 memorandum of understanding.10 Although the article offered no evidence that Australia’s capacity-building efforts are directly linked to the killings, the guilt-by-association headline alone may make the government wary about the optics of working with the Philippines on the domestic front. It will become increasingly challenging to secure the support of the Australian public for the provision of bilateral assistance to an administration that openly operates under significantly different civil and political norms.

Do these frictions bubble up into foreign and security policy cooperation? The countries signed a “Joint Declaration on Australia-The Philippines Comprehensive Partnership” in November 2015, which expressed the willingness of Canberra and Manila to continue to work together and deepen cooperation on a range of strategic issues, including strengthening regional institutions, ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight under international law, and bilateral defense initiatives.11 Looking forward at the time, the Comprehensive Partnership was widely expected to bolster bilateral ties and lead to greater convergence of interests between the two parties.12 However, such expectations have been shaken by Duterte’s election, which seems to herald a dramatic shift away from the foreign policy of his predecessor, Benigno Aquino.

The newly elected president left US officials baffled when he announced his country’s “separation” from Washington during a state visit to Beijing in October, before declaring: “Maybe I will go to Russia, to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world—China, Philippines, and Russia.”13 Although officials in Manila quickly acted to qualify these statements and Duterte would later clarify that his government has no intention of breaking diplomatic ties with the United States, the new President has expressed a clear desire for a more independent foreign policy, which will involve scaling back Manila’s deep ties with Washington while looking to build closer relations with Beijing and Moscow.14 While it is too early in Duterte’s term to know for certain how these views will translate into concrete policy outcomes, policymakers in Australia will no doubt be paying close attention both to his foreign policy statements, and the extent to which these manifest in concrete action.

From Canberra’s perspective, Duterte’s intentions are important for at least three reasons. First, the president’s apparent rapprochement with China could be either a positive or a negative. It would be positive if it illuminated a pathway to the peaceful resolution of disputes between China and other disputant states in the South and East China seas. If Duterte’s outreach offers Beijing an off-ramp from its strong rhetoric regarding its territorial claims and towards a negotiated resolution, the reduction in tensions would be in everyone’s interests, including Australia’s.

On the other hand, Australia’s interests will suffer if Manila somehow elects to repudiate or otherwise undermine its clear victory in the South China Sea arbitration, thereby eroding the rules-based international order that has long been a pillar of Australian foreign policy. Australia has every interest in having the arbitral tribunal’s ruling fully respected and implemented, and, as such, it should come as no surprise that Foreign Minister Bishop raised concerns about Duterte’s decision in September to discontinue joint US-Filipino naval patrols through contested waters in the South China Sea, questioning what the Philippines was doing to “reinforce the arbitration findings.”15 Australia, no doubt, views positively the de-escalation of tensions and resumption of bilateral discussions between Beijing and Manila over their conflicting South China Sea claims that have occurred since Duterte’s election. Nevertheless, the president’s statement that the tribunal award would “take a back seat” during talks raised eyebrows in Canberra, particularly due to the fact that the Australian government sustained criticism from Beijing for supporting the Philippines when it called on China to respect the tribunal’s decision when it was handed down earlier in 2016.16

Second, and relatedly, Canberra will be keenly observing the unfolding dynamics of a genuine warming of relations between China and a disputant state. Beijing meticulously cultivated positive bilateral relations with almost every state in the region during the 2000s, resolving certain territorial disputes in the process, but since the early 2010s regional tensions have risen in tandem with the perception of increased Chinese assertiveness.17 Thus, if China sees the political opportunity to “do a deal,” how will it proceed, and what exactly would such a deal mean for regional political dynamics? What tools of statecraft will Beijing employ, and what opportunities for influence will be available? Much has been written about the potential for China’s regional leadership to increase in scope and depth—for example, institutionally via the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and economically via the “One Belt One Road” initiative.18 Could these or other new instruments be utilized to buttress the forging of deeper political ties?

Finally, we come to the newly entered elephant in the room on all questions of regional order and stability: Donald Trump’ victory in the 2016 US presidential election. The US alliance has been the core of Australia’s security policy since World War II, and it is far from clear whether bilateral relations will be defined by continuity or change over the coming four years. A strong US presence is important not only for Australia’s territorial security, but as an anchor for regional stability. As Bishop recently stated when commenting on Australian concerns about the prospect of Manila distancing itself from Washington, the United States “has been the principal security guarantor for our region and many nations, including the Philippines and Australia, have benefited enormously from the US presence.”19

Anxieties are growing that Australia simply cannot rely on the United States to always be there. Distinguished thinkers such as former prime minister Paul Keating and academic Hugh White have argued that the election of Donald Trump will simply accelerate their predictions of US decline.20 Accordingly, Australia will be observing closely how the United States acts elsewhere in the region in situations where its authority and strength are more directly challenged. Although Duterte stated he no longer wants to “quarrel” with the United States when congratulating Trump on his election win,21 the trajectory of the relationship between the two nations under their new presidents will be defined by unpredictability. Following Trump’s election, Duterte first seemed to continue his distancing from Washington with the provocative statement that, “if China and Russia would decide to create a new order, I will be the first to join.”22 Then, after a brief telephone conversation in early December in which Trump is reported to have told the Philippine president he was conducting his antidrug campaign “the right way” and extended invitations to New York and Washington, Duterte is reported to have stated he was pleased with the “rapport” he had with the US president-elect and that they “will maintain…and enhance the bilateral ties between [their] two countries."23 Accordingly, Trump’s election appears be creating the space for Washington and Manila to overcome their recent disagreements, but not because Duterte is coming around to the status quo on key issues, but because a Trump administration may shift US policy closer to a position inherently closer to Duterte’s worldview.

Australian policymakers must therefore prepare for two significant, and concerning, departures from the status quo. In the first, Manila’s pivot away continues and Washington is either unable or unwilling to bring an uncooperative Philippines back into the fold. In the second, Duterte’s Philippines maintains its close ties with the United States, but only because the future Trump administration radically reorientates Washington’s priorities in the region. In either of these scenarios, the anxiety level in Canberra regarding the possibility of great power abandonment24—long the most visceral fear of Australian strategic thinkers—may reach levels not seen since the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942.

Whether Australia is more accurately described as a “Top 20” or a “middle power,”25 relative to the two superpowers and the Philippines’ ASEAN partners, there is likely little Canberra can do shift Manila’s position on any given foreign policy issue. Duterte’s election, nevertheless, provides an important opportunity for strategic thinkers, not just in Australia but all those following these issues because it, like the election of Donald Trump, is the kind of “shock” that will test prevailing assumptions about how the regional order works. Put simply, the Philippines is more important than ever, and there is much countries like Australia will be able to learn from watching Manila’s strategic trajectory and the dynamics of its interactions with, and between, the great powers. These lessons will inform the strategic dilemmas Canberra may face in the years ahead.

* I wish to acknowledge the research assistance of Victor Ferguson.

1. Colin Cosier, “Islamic State affiliates ‘in Australia’s backyard’, ASIS spy chief Nick Warner says,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, September 26, 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-09-26/asis-spy-chief-warns-on-jihadists-in-south-east-asia/7877568.

2. According to the Pew Research Center global attitudes survey in 2015, 92
percent of Filipinos and 63 percent of Australians viewed the US favorably: See Pew Research Center, Global Indicators Database, 2015, http://www.pewglobal.org/database/indicator/1/survey/17/.

3. Travis M. Andrews, “After ‘disgusting’ gang rape joke, Philippine presidential contender Duterte widens lead,” The Washington Post, April 25, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/04/25/after-disgusting-gang-rape-joke-philippine-presidential-contender-duterte-widens-lead/.

4. Amanda Gorely, Twitter post, April 18, 2016, 12:39 pm, https://twitter.com/AusAmbPH/status/721890962763423744. A spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade also noted the “highly regrettable” comments and continued that “Australia strongly condemns such comments that make light of rape, which is a violent crime”: “Rodrigo Duterte: Philippines presidential candidate hits back as rape remark sparks fury,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, April 18, 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-04-18/rodrigo-duterte-hits-back-back-as-rape-remark-sparks-fury/7333532.

5. Veronica Pulumbarit, “Duterte apologizes for rape remarks,” GMA News Online, April 19, 2016, http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/563208/news/nation/duterte-apologizes-for-rape-remarks.

6. Lindsay Murdoch, “Rodrigo Duterte lashes out at Australia after missionary rape joke,” Sydney Morning Herald, April 20, 2016, http://www.smh.com.au/world/rodrigo-duterte-lashes-out-at-australia-after-missionary-rape-joke-20160419-go9pg5.html.

7. Michaela del Callar, “Despite rape joke, Australia vows to work with Duterte government,” GMA News Online, May 20, 2016, http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/567023/news/nation/despite-rape-joke-australia-vows-to-work-with-duterte-government.

8. Clare Baldwin and Andrew R.C. Marshall, “As death toll rises, Duterte deploys dubious data in ‘war on drugs,’” Reuters, October 18, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/philippines-duterte-data/.

9. Primrose Riordan, “Julie Bishop calls on Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte to maintain US alliance,” Australian Financial Review, October 3, 2016, http://www.afr.com/news/julie-bishop-calls-on-philippines-rodrigo-duterte-to-maintain-us-alliance-20161003-grtxzt.

10. Lindsay Murdoch, “Australia providing training, support to Philippine police despite killing spree,” Sydney Morning Herald, November 3, 2016, http://www.smh.com.au/world/australia-providing-training-support-to-philippine-police-despite-killing-spree-20161103-gsh1j8.html.

11. Australian Government, “Joint Declaration on Australia-The Philippines Comprehensive Partnership,” Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, http://dfat.gov.au/about-us/publications/Pages/joint-declaration-on-australia-the-philippines-comprehensive-partnership.aspx.

12. Julio S. Amador III, “Implications of the Philippines-Australia Comprehensive Partnership,” Centre for International Relations and Strategic Studies, July 4, 2016, http://www.fsi.gov.ph/implications-of-the-philippines-australia-comprehensive-partnership/.

13. “Duterte clarifies ‘separation’ comments, says trade ties between Philippines and US will stay,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, October 22, 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-10-21/duterte-says-us-has-lost-aligns-philippines-with-china/7952628.

14. Andreo Calonzo, Chris Blake and David Tweed, “Duterte Bids US Goodbye with Embrace of China and Russia,” Bloomberg, October 21, 2016, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-10-20/china-hails-deal-with-duterte-to-restart-south-china-sea-talks.

15. Primrose Riordan, “Julie Bishop issues ‘please explain’ to Philippines’ Duterte,” Australian Financial Review, September 14, 2016, http://www.afr.com/news/julie-bishop-issues-please-explain-to-philippines-duterte-20160914-grgh3r.

16. “Rodrigo Duterte: South China Sea arbitration case to take ‘back seat’ during Beijing visit, Philippine leader says,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, October 20, 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-10-20/rodrigo-duterte-says-south-china-sea-case-to-take-back-seat/7948474.

17. Prashanth Parameswaran, “ASEAN’s Divided Approach to China’s Rise,” The Asan Forum, Vol. 4, No. 5 (2016), http://www.theasanforum.org/aseans-divided-approach-to-chinas-rise/.

18. David Arase, “What to Make of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank,” The Asan Forum, Vol. 3, No. 3 (2015), http://www.theasanforum.org/what-to-make-of-the-asian-infrastructure-investment-bank/.

19. Insiders, “Julie Bishop Joins Insiders,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, October 30, 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/insiders/content/2016/s4565896.htm.

20. Hugh White, “Australia Must Prepare for an Asia Without America,” The Interpreter, November 10, 2016, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/australia-must-prepare-asia-without-america.

21. Rozanna Latif, “Philippines’ Duterte says to stop quarrels with US after Trump win,” Reuters, November 9, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-reaction-philippines-idUSKBN13412N?il=0.

22. Michael Peel, “Philippines’ Duterte backs ‘new order’ led by China and Russia,” Financial Times, November 17, 2016, https://www.ft.com/content/5e51dd92-acaf-11e6-9cb3-bb8207902122.

23. Associated Press, “Philippines President Duterte Phones Trump”, New York Times, December 2, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2016/12/02/world/asia/ap-as-philippines-duterte-trump.html.

24. Allan Gyngell, “Emerging Challenges for Australian Foreign Policy,” Australian Journal of International Affairs 68, no. 4 (2014): 381-385.

25. Australian Strategic Policy Institute, “Are we a top 20 Nation or a Middle Power?”, ASPI Strategic Insights, no. 81, December 2014, https://www.aspi.org.au/publications/are-we-a-top-20-nation-or-a-middle-power-views-on-australias-position-in-the-world/SI81Australia_as_top20nation.pdf.