Image Credit: Ace of Hearts – Poker” by pokerphotos/flickr; licence: CC BY 2.0.

Written by Ananda Devi Domingo-Almase.

At the two-tier game of national security, Philippine President Rodrigo R. Duterte is showing his hand by making his policy choices perfectly clear.  As the primary securitising actor in the domestic sphere, he plays his trump card of using the forces of the state to wage war against illegal drugs and criminality inside the country.  But as a rational security player at the strategic arena, he calculates the odds and concedes the weakness of his armed forces to challenge China’s assertiveness in territorial waters and features claimed by the Philippines in the contested South China Sea (SCS).

The Philippines’ 2016 victory in international arbitration’s ruling on the SCS issue could be an ace for Duterte, but he knows too well this can be outmaneuvered by a great power with the high card. His country’s alliance with the United States could also be an advantage for Duterte to “not miss a trick” in the strategic game. But Duterte’s strong assertion of an independent foreign policy away from the US, which had once occupied the Philippines as colony, has led to  a pivot to China even after the SCS arbitration.

This does not mean, however, that Duterte cannot hedge his policy bets on rival powers in a bid to promote and protect his real interests: Filipino welfare at home and abroad, public safety and order in the country, self-determination, and national survival. It must be noted that Duterte’s focus on these core interests is deterministic, even if his policy preferences appear to be erratic.

How he (Duterte) hedges and “rolls the dice” through capacity building and constructive engagements on other fronts  is an enduring challenge for the Philippines with its small state syndrome

On 8 January 2020, Duterte – fearing  for the lives of 1.2 million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in the Middle East – declared  that he will side with the US if war breaks out between US and Iran. The statement was mirrored by orders during a Cabinet meeting to prepare for possible repatriation of affected OFWs, and to send special message to Baghdad and Tehran of his “urgent desire and wish that no Filipinos be harmed in the course of the conflict.” But a few weeks later, on 23 January 2020, Duterte threatened to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US if the latter does not reverse its visa cancellation for Senator Ronald dela Rosa – the former chief of the Philippine National Police tagged in the drug war. Prior to this, Duterte had made instructions to the immigration bureau to ban entry to the Philippines of three American senators for backing a US measure to bar Filipino officials – who had been said to participate in wrongful imprisonment of his political opponent – from coming to the US.  On 30 January 2020, Duterte gave orders to his Cabinet not to travel to the US as an act of indignation against US denial of dela Rosa’s visa.

How Duterte can affect, to some degree, the political calculations of big players depends on which power aces and bargaining chips he has in his hand. This depends on his will and skill to convert his country’s real and latent powers into a successful strategy of influencing other players’ thinking and behavior in his favor. With this, it is important to ask the following questions: What kinds of power does Duterte’s National Security Strategy (NSS) exhibit to address threats to Philippines’ security and achieve its national ambitions at the strategic level? How does Duterte bet on his policy choices to get others to act in ways that are beneficial to his country’s interests? How can a weak state like the Philippines play smart in a high-stakes game?

Duterte’s Power Aces: “On the Cards”

A country’s NSS contains a mix of methods and power tools to navigate the complex security environment. It is in this document that President Duterte – as Chief of State, Commander-in-Chief and Chief Architect of Foreign Policy in the Philippines, among other roles – communicates to the world the sources of his country’s power and national pride. This brings us then to a critical review of his NSS, particularly its instruments of national power and the objectives they aim to accomplish.

In the section on  “effective use of the instruments of national power” in the NSS,  the first item of political and legal instrument states that this “will address several weaknesses pertaining to bureaucratic turfing, uneven-playing field, poor governance, unnecessary overlapping and multiple inter-agency mechanisms.” The second item of diplomatic instrument affirms the country’s commitment to uphold international norms, establish friendly relations with other nations, and protect Filipino workers abroad – estimated at 2.3 million in 2019.

The third and fourth items of informational and intelligence instruments seek to promote effective governance and national consensus, as well as counter misinformation. The fifth item of economic and technological instrument aims to reduce poverty, pursue rapid economic growth, and improve the education sector, while the sixth, military and law enforcement instrument, provides that the armed forces maintain law and order at home and defend the country’s sovereignty and territory from external threats. Further, it intends to build up credible deterrence and enhance “mutual defense arrangements with other nations.”

It can be seen that the six instruments of national power in Duterte’s NSS do not have facts and figures of real capabilities, only general desires to address a wide range of national problems. The given instruments are mostly directed at issues and concerns in public administration and governance. While the diplomatic instrument is concerned about promoting amity in foreign relations, it is geared more towards protecting millions of Filipinos worldwide. The military instrument, on the other hand, is used for law enforcement and internal security. Building up credible deterrence is a long-time aspiration and enhancing defense partnerships with “other nations” is an ambiguous intention. The military instrument, which should be in tandem with diplomacy, is not directed towards attaining clear strategic objectives.

Apparently, the power conception and military orientation in the Philippines’ NSS reveal the nature of a country with a “small state security syndrome.” This is despite the fact that the Philippines has big population – estimated at 109.5 million for 2020, vast archipelagic territory of 7,640 islands, abundant land and water resources, and large economy growing at a rate of more than 6%. Given Duterte’s actual power aces in his NSS, it may be said that the fate of his country in a highly competitive arena is “on the cards.”

Policy Bets for Philippine Security: “Rolling the Dice”

When President Duterte assumed office in 2016, he pivoted towards China and threatened to terminate military exercises with the US in the wake of the US criticism of alleged extrajudicial killings attendant to his war against illegal drugs. But in 2017, following Donald Trump’s election as US President, Duterte rekindled defense and economic relations with the US. In the same year, Duterte agreed on the conduct of additional military exercises and intelligence exchange on counterterrorism with the Americans. In 2019, the Philippine military – which benefitted from US military assistance amounting to 15 billion US dollars since 2015 – signed deals with the US and lined up more than 300 security cooperation activities for 2020. But in January 2020, Duterte threatened to abandon all this if the US does not revoke its visa cancellation for his  political ally.

The President may know how to bargain and play the game, but there are serious strategic risks in betting on extreme balancing [i.e. abandoning defence agreements with the US and bandwagoning with its rival power], which he also needs to offset with counter mitigating measures. How he will hedge and “roll the dice” through capacity building and constructive engagements on other fronts [e.g. economic trade and multilateral diplomacy] is an enduring challenge for a Philippines dealing with small state syndrome.

Nevertheless, being small – relative to others and/or to a country’s perceptual insecurities – is not so much of a handicap in the twenty first century world. Notions of power and success are changing in international politics, and so are the players and rules of the game in multi-dimensional domains. As Harvard Professor Joseph Nye wrote about the future of power: “Conventional wisdom has always held that the state with the largest military prevails, but in an information age it may be the state (or non-states) with the best story that wins.” Theoretically, this means that a weak country like the Philippines must be able to construct and communicate a powerful narrative that can strike at the hearts and minds of those who can come to its aid or join in its crusade. Notably, this calls for a smart power diplomacy that can attract others and influence those with the capacity to shape strategic outcomes.

In a game of cards, players who hold the aces should win, although they still need to play their hand well. A smart strategy, which includes proper timing and careful calculation, is needed when showing the high card, and the same is true in geopolitics. However, it must be noted that unlike cards, the political dynamics of interdependent sovereign actors are not governed by a one-time zero-sum contest in which the winner takes all and leaves the table. The political game continues to play out between multi-dimensional regimes, where varied interests are at stake and negotiated. The gameplay is all about betting one’s cards with others and getting the stakes within a range of acceptable win-sets. To maximise gains or minimise losses within a constructed zone of possible agreements, Duterte must employ both soft and smart power techniques to produce policy outcomes that are acceptable to other foreign policy actors and also favorable to his people. 

Ananda Devi Domingo-Almase, DPA is the Professor III of the National Defense College of the Philippines (NDCP) and the Course Director of the National Security Policy Analysis in the Master in National Security Administration (MNSA) Program of the College. The views expressed in this article are hers alone and do not reflect the opinion and position of the NDCP nor the Department of National Defense (DND).

*Articles published by The Asia Dialogue represent the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of The Asia Dialogue or affiliated institutions.

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