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Author: Makoi Popioco, Canberra

The Philippines was the first from ASEAN to announce support for AUKUS — the tripartite nuclear-powered submarine pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States aimed at countering China in the Indo-Pacific. But the Philippines’ reception of AUKUS has oscillated from warm to cold depending on who is talking — an indication the country’s endorsement of AUKUS is anything but long-term. The ultimate clincher will now be the country’s newly elected President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Shortly after the announcement of AUKUS in September 2021, Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr said the enhancement of Australia’s military capacity is essential to achieving and maintaining geostrategic balance in the region. Philippine Secretary of National Defence Delfin Lorenzana also responded with a welcoming stance, albeit not as ardently.

But a little over a week later, President Rodrigo Duterte said he is worried the defence partnership might precipitate a regional nuclear arms race, echoing the concerns of Malaysia and Indonesia.

During an ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meeting in early October 2021, a foreign affairs official said the Philippines continues to see value in boosting Australia’s ‘capacity to project power’. But, this time the country’s new statement on AUKUS came with the caveat that the Philippines will ‘continuously assess this agreement and welcome efforts made by the countries concerned to explain it further’.

In mid-October, Locsin appeared at an online event hosted by the Lowy Institute and reiterated his enthusiasm for AUKUS without mentioning Duterte’s concerns. In the same month, Duterte was heard personally acknowledging AUKUS in public for the first time. The outgoing president spoke sparingly, imploring regional powers to exercise self-restraint and stating that AUKUS ‘must complement and not complicate’ ASEAN’s methods of cooperation.

The multiplicity of policy stances on matters involving China and the disputed sea was not uncommon for the Duterte administration. During his time in office, Duterte courted Beijing to broaden Sino-Philippine economic ties. His statements had often been in disagreement with his own agencies’ public positions.

In cases of internal conflict on Beijing’s aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea, Duterte frequently intervened. After China deployed hundreds of militia vessels to the disputed waters in March 2021, Locsin and Lorenzana took a hardline approach to demanding the removal of the commercial fishing fleet operating with the Chinese military. Locsin even issued an expletive-laden tweet. The tough-talking Duterte was accommodative and then barred his ministers from engaging in further ‘word war’ with Chinese officials, which later prompted Locsin to apologise.

This mercurial approach to foreign policymaking had been part and parcel of Duterte’s leadership. His issuing of multiple conflicting statements was intended to maintain an image of neutrality — or non-commitment — that will be clarified only in times of controversy.

From the outset, Duterte was clear that he was going to pursue an independent foreign policy that, to him, demanded a divorce from the United States. The main casualty of this approach was the decades-old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). Duterte also aimed to revitalise relations with Beijing, whose Belt and Road Initiative intersected with Duterte’s interests in expanding his flagship infrastructure program.

Duterte’s attempt to latch onto China’s infrastructure funding resulted in disappointing dividends. But after all that’s been said and done between Duterte and three United States presidents, the abrogation of the VFA was reversed in 2021 at Duterte’s behest. Duterte also leveraged the agreement to secure other commitments.

Some saw the security pact’s reinstatement as Duterte recognising that Beijing is not going to make good on its pledges and re-aligning with the United States. It can also be construed as Duterte’s last-ditch attempt at nudging China into realising more projects before his term ended. Strategy or not, this approach yielded positive results. Whether these results will last is another question.

The subtext of the Philippines’ support for AUKUS is the antagonism of China. The turn of events surrounding the Philippines’ reception of AUKUS suggests its support is provisional.

The future of the Philippines’ China strategy — which will also shape policies on US-allied security partnerships like AUKUS — will now be decided by the country’s president-elect Ferdinand ‘Bong Bong’ Marcos Jr, who will take office on 30 June. Marcos remains in Beijing’s good graces and has been echoing Duterte’s policy concessions in the South China Sea dispute.

Makoi Popioco is an independent journalist.The post ‘The Philippines supports AUKUS’. Not so fast first appeared on News JU.

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