After years of shifting the Philippines closer to China, President Rodrigo Duterte appears to be leaning back towards the US.
The 75-year-old leader gave his most forceful defense yet of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 ruling in favour of the Philippines that said Beijing’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea breached international law.
Addressing the United Nations General Assembly, Duterte said the decision “is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon.”
“We firmly reject attempts to undermine it,” Duterte said, without naming China.
“We welcome the increasing number of states that have come in support of the award and what it stands for — the triumph of reason over rashness, of law over disorder, of amity over ambition.”
Duterte had resisted raising the tribunal ruling after he took power in 2016, embracing closer ties with China while announcing a “separation” from the US — his country’s biggest military ally for decades.
But in recent months his government has started to shift back towards America, which remains widely popular among Filipinos, as Beijing has increased assertiveness in the South China Sea and the Philippine economy suffers due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
There’s now “more space for those critical of China to be heard and to have influence,” said Malcolm Cook, visiting senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute and coordinator of its Philippines project, adding that officials known to be more hawkish on China have stepped to the fore while Duterte has dialed back on anti-US rhetoric. “The weights on the balance of Philippine foreign policy for good relations with the US and good relations with China have shifted this year in favour of the US.”