Sui Generis

Why Duterte failed to tilt the Philippines towards China

Marites Dañguilan Vitug

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Why Duterte failed to tilt the Philippines towards China
Apart from the unpopularity of former President Rodrigo Duterte's pro-China policy, his position was not necessarily shared by some Cabinet members and government institutions

It is easy to get lost in the fog of the word war between the Philippines and China. What is clear is this: China wants to take what isn’t theirs, primarily Ayungin Shoal. It’s their low-hanging fruit, the feature that they can occupy once the rusty and decaying BRP Sierra Madre collapses.

That’s why the Chinese embassy here has been on overdrive, dredging up past deals and supposedly current ones, all with the aim of stopping the Philippines from bringing materials to repair the World War II-vintage ship.

Former president Rodrigo Duterte admitted that he, indeed, agreed to China’s demand that only water and food should be supplied to our troops in Sierra Madre. But Delfin Lorenzana, defense secretary at the time, appeared to be unaware of this verbal agreement of Duterte and Xi Jinping.

On Lorenzana’s watch, the Navy delivered construction materials and one of these resupply missions was even water cannoned by the China Coast Guard. Lorenzana angrily told the Chinese embassy that it was the right of the Philippines to maintain its commissioned ship.

The pushback: DFA

Overall, Duterte failed to rally the country towards China. Apart from the unpopularity of his pro-China policy, his position was not necessarily shared by some Cabinet members and government institutions. Implementing this – and following through – depended on them.

His early appointees at the foreign affairs department – Perfecto Yasay and Alan Peter Cayetano – toed the line. It was frustrating for some in the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), especially those dealing with the Asia-Pacific region.

The timing made it worse. Duterte’s embrace of China came soon after the Philippines’ historic victory in its maritime case against China in July 2016. 

Yasay appeared somber when he announced the country’s victory as if he were in a wake. Duterte eventually said that the decision of the international arbitration court was a piece of paper fit for the waste basket. 

Cayetano, for his part, did not allow the staff in the Philippines and embassies to organize forums to explain what the victory meant not only for us but also for the region.

When Teodoro Locsin Jr. took over the DFA, things changed. His was a discordant voice in the Cabinet. How was it possible that Locsin was able to publicly speak up against China? He was also able to foil China’s efforts to explore oil and gas in the Philippine EEZ.

A major factor was Duterte’s leadership style: he was not a hands-on president. He did not concern himself with details and left members of his Cabinet with a lot of leeway in implementing policy – as he focused on his drug war and anti-crime campaign. Locsin said that when he asked for marching orders from Duterte, the president said: “I tossed you the ball, play it as you see fit.” 

The other factors were Locsin’s personality and the staff at the DFA. While Locsin had an enormous sense of belief in himself, he listened to the inputs of the staff who resisted Duterte’s China pivot.

Looking back, despite his volatile temper and his big ego, Locsin was the right person to lead the DFA at the time, a match for Duterte.

The pushback: DND

At the Department of National Defense, Lorenzana had to do a balancing act. A retired general, he lived in the US for many years and was assigned at the Philippine embassy in Washington DC.

As defense secretary, Lorenzana knew the anti-China sentiment of the men and women in uniform. The military, after all, has its strategic moorings in an alliance with the US and partners in the West as well as with friendly countries like Japan and Australia.

Duterte was a verbal person; he did not put his orders in writing. For example, when he announced that he wanted the US troops to leave the country, Lorenzana had to clarify with Duterte what he really wanted. Did the President want it immediately or can the American soldiers stay for a few more years?

Duterte replied: “Not immediate, they can stay for a couple of years while we are fighting the terrorists.” But the US troops remained until Duterte left office in 2022.

In September 2016, Duterte also said that the annual Balikatan or joint US-Philippine military exercises would be the last. Again, Lorenzana asked Duterte what he really wanted. Duterte said, just limit the exercises. It turned out that as Duterte’s term was about to end, the largest Balikatan in seven years (since 2015) took place on his watch.

The Pushback: AFP and Coast Guard

On the seas, the Navy and the Coast Guard continued their patrols in the West Philippine Sea. There was a time, though, that the head of the Coast Guard, who was a believer in Duterte’s pro-China policy, engaged with the China Coast Guard. This was heavily criticized by the public.

In the Navy, officers told me that Duterte’s pro-China rhetoric did not influence them. The Navy is the most exposed, in the armed forces, to China’s intimidation in the West Philippine Sea.

On the seas, in the day-to-day patrols, the Navy stayed the course.

It was also the Navy which objected to the plan of a Chinese company to take over the bankrupt Korean shipyard in Subic, a strategic area, for national security reasons. Today, the Navy has a home in Subic.

What mattered to Duterte was that he, as head of state, was close to China and that he kept this undying friendship until his last days in office.

Let me know what you think. You can email me at

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Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.