The pendulum of Philippine politics

The pendulum of Philippine politics: How the country’s domestic policy is shifting the fulcrum of the South China Sea dispute


12 | 04 | 2024


The dynamic nature of the Philippines’ response to the territorial conflict is attributed to an equally volatile domestic political scene defined by constitutional provisions and normative factors

En la imagen

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet for the first time at a private bilateral gathering during the 2022 APEC summit in Bangkok, Thailand [Philippine Presidency]

For decades, a conflict in the South China Sea has ‘defined’ Southeast Asia—fueled by competing sovereignty claims by bordering states like Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, China, and the Philippines.

Between the latter two, a relatively dormant political disagreement persisted before a tense standoff in the Scarborough Shoal disrupted the status quo in 2012. Consequently, both states have implemented distinct strategies to respond to the bitter conflict. On the one hand, China has religiously pursued a 9-dash line policybased on a map introduced in 1947 that illustrates a U-shaped boundary encompassing about 90% of the contested waters. In contrast, the hedging approach of the Philippines can be likened to a fluctuating pendulum swinging between aggressive lawfare and superpower appeasement.

Many theorize that the latter’s complex foreign policy has been influenced by an equally complicated blend of factors. A report by the Defense Technical Information Center specifically identifies 1) a colonial legacy inspiring a general pattern of a US-Philippine alliance, 2) a perceived threat from China’s military capabilities as a global superpower, 3) the recognition and subsequent prioritization of economic gains from bilateral trade with China, and 4) the role of ASEAN as a third-party arbiter conducting diplomatic consultations. Nonetheless, these factors solely focus on the ‘external’ influences on the Philippine foreign strategy, as is the norm with the dominant neorealist international relations theory.

As a result, there seems to be a research gap in analyzing the country as more than a mere pawn in a political game between global superpowers. This current essay thus aims to examine ‘national-level’ factors of the issue—based on the argument of Filipino researchers that domestic dynamics may “influence [Philippine] foreign policy and its outcomes” from the inside out. An internal analysis of constitutional provisions and normative factors will be conducted because they reflect both objective and subjective realities in Philippine politics. Together, these factors could holistically explain why a response to the West Philippine Sea dispute (as it is known locally) has rarely survived longer than the term of the President of the time, and more interestingly, how each succeeding leader pursues a completely paradoxical strategy that reverses previous efforts. Without discrediting dominant theories on foreign behavior, they could shed light on the country’s inability to institutionalize a strategy at the political-regional level despite the stability of their territorial claim in the legal sphere.

Constitutional factors: Reviewing the rules of the game

Beginning at a national level, intentionally fabricated provisions in the Philippine political system seem conducive to how the country’s foreign policy develops. At the heart of this idea lies the 1987 Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines, which serves as the official codification of policies and practices that define the conduct of the nation’s statecraft.

Under Article II Section 1, the Philippines explicitly establishes itself as a “democratic” and “republican” state. Such a system bestows power to the Filipino People to elect representatives (specifically a president) to conduct politics on their behalf. Nonetheless, it may also be more likely for a Head of State to act on a ‘perceived’ legitimacy. Based on a flawed rationale that they received a direct mandate through election by a popular majority vote, leaders may justify creating a foreign policy as they see fit.

Nonetheless, the political system is not exclusive to the Philippines. Amongst other stakeholders in the South China Sea issue, the United States of America also adheres to a presidential model. Unlike the former, however, their foreign policy approach has been cohesive and long-term, bringing up the question of what ‘exactly’ makes the Philippines so different if they share the same structural DNA.

The answer lies in the proximity of the countries to the issue. As established, the Philippines has sovereignty claims over the region. They are at the heart of the maritime conflict and have more at stake than the US, which has the safety net of the Pacific Ocean separating it from the legal and physical battle. Thus, the Philippines’ interests may be more nuanced. This complexity allows state leaders to see multiple facets of the conflict (for example, both economic benefits but also military threats) and subsequently create a policy based on that perspective. In contrast, the US’ pivot to Asia can be attributed to only one goal: to contain a “Chinese power surge that is threatening [their] position in global affairs.” Thus, their balancing act remains the same regardless of which US President is in office.

To this end, it can also be seen that the system in itself may not be to blame but also how it is implemented in a country. In the Philippines, the extensive powers the presidential model bestows the Head of Government allows the state response towards the maritime dispute to be heavily dependent on their personal goals or area of expertise. This institutional factor could explain why as a professional economist, former President Arroyo’s foreign policy focused on the ‘commercial incentives’ of a joint oil-exploration deal in the disputed waters, or why as a military general, former President Ramos’ strategy focused on an ‘aggressive national defense’ and the strengthening of the country’s forces in the region. If the US had as big of a stake in the issue, its stance could be as dynamic as that of the Philippines. In reality, however, the collective interest of the state grounds the policy of the Head of Government in a way that incentivizes them not to exploit the system.

When further comparing the presidential model to the more popular parliamentary system, it is also seen that it cultivates an environment wherein parties (as well as the accountability measures and the ideological coherence they bring) are less significant to the elected official’s political plan. Because presidents rely on general population support to get elected while prime ministers rely on support from their peers, weaker party identification and higher electoral volatility in a presidential system may constitute favorable terrain for the personalization of politics. Historically, this premise seems true in the Philippines as nearly half of its former presidents switched parties, formed new ones, or left the party system altogether to run independently. In the strategy towards the maritime dispute, they may effectively act arbitrarily without an anchor to a state interest.

When compared again to the US which adopts the ‘same’ model but has a coherent policy, its system seems not as similar to the Philippines as one may initially think. While the Asian state follows the norm among adoptees of this model of keeping parties insignificant, the US hosts a “two-party system [that is] an outlier in the modern world.” Thus, its interpretation of the presidential system may seem closer than traditional to the parliamentary model since the election of the chief executive relies on peer support as much as the aforementioned general population support. In what many call “primary politics,” candidates from the Democratic and Republican parties are first internally nominated by their peers before running on their party’s behalf in general US elections. This double requirement makes it so that the elected US president is more accountable to other government officials than their Philippine counterparts. In terms of foreign policy, the chief executive may be less likely to change their stance on the dispute because they have a stronger ideological anchor.

That is not to say that arbitration of foreign policy is accepted in the Philippines. A legal safeguard known as the Philippine Foreign Service Act of 1991 was implemented to combat the creation of a strategy heavily dependent on the interests of one individual. This mandate explicitly requires the national government to adopt an objective foreign policy based on three pillars: 1) the preservation and enhancement of national security, 2) the promotion and attainment of economic security, and 3) the protection of the rights and promotion of the welfare and interest of Filipinos overseas. Still, many argue that subjective domestic variables such as leadership style, decision-makers’ mentalities, and a bureaucratic political model may affect the direction of Philippine foreign policy more than the aforementioned pillars. As a result, the simultaneous existence of an objective framework and behavioral factors may reveal a misalignment within the Philippine political system that could further translate into a weakness at the international level. While this reality means that the Philippines’ foreign policy is flexible when a president feels necessary, it also implies that instability and drastic change could occur when that leader leaves office.

This is where the Constitution’s rules regarding terms and reelections come in to reinforce this ambiguous reality. Article VII Section 4 states that citizens elect the president and vice-president for a limited term of 6 years, with the former’s ineligibility for personal reelection. In a nation formerly plagued by long-term dictatorship, arbitrary martial law, and impeachments, the goal is to ensure the occurrence of elections at regular intervals and to redirect the focus of an incumbent from mere re-election to effective governance. However, further analysis reveals an unintended consequence that simultaneously prevents policy continuityin the Philippine strategic culture. With just 6 years in office, it has been next to impossible for a clear and long-standing strategic policy to stick. This phenomenon is worsened by the existence of a trend wherein one’s political opponent succeeds the presidency and overturns the policy that took 6 years to enforce.

The best example of this idea is the shift in foreign policy during the presidential succession between Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Benigno Aquino III, and Rodrigo Duterte. It started with Arroyo’s government fully embracing “the opportunity to become China’s strong partner” in the fields of trade, oil exploration, and overall economic reform. Nonetheless, her self-proclaimed “golden age of friendship between the Philippines and China” was cut short when her successor took office. From 2010 to 2016, Aquino took what is arguably the ‘most aggressive’ response to the maritime conflict in Philippine history. His strategy was characterized by frequent diplomatic protests, lawfare at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, and even systematic changes in the way the conflict is discussed locally by formally changing the name of the disputed area to the “West Philippine Sea.” It was during this time that the small-archipelagic State seemed to truly challenge China’s regional hegemony. Following the previous trend, however, this progress seemingly reversed when Duterte entered office. Regressing to a foreign policy that cultivated warmer relations with Beijing, he opened up the country to Chinese trade and investment while simultaneously making an enemy of one of the Philippines’ longest allies: the US. His foreign policy was characterized by a strategic leveraging of one global superpower against another.

Altogether, these provisions enshrined in the Constitution seem to both result in and support a continued reality of a foreign strategy defined by unsteady domestic politics.

En la imagen

Left, unofficial map of the West Philippine Sea in the South China Sea as prepared by the Philippines’ National Mapping and Resource Information Authority [NAMRIA]. Right, a map where the waters Manila calls the West Philippine Sea are colored [Roel Balingit]

Normative factors: Analyzing the Philippine political culture

Ultimately, however, the system in itself may not be enough to explain the development of the Philippine foreign policy. On the one hand, such protocols and rules permit a president to pursue their desired strategy easily. On the other hand, it does not explain exactly why each head of state chooses to take such an extremely contrasting strategy from their predecessor at the expense of national stability. To this end, it might be more helpful to look at some uncodified realities that define Philippine political culture, and in turn, the formation of its foreign policy. Such notions may include norms, shared mentalities, and general behavior patterns among the country’s leaders.

In what many have branded a “patrimonial oligarchic state,” the Philippines has been undeniably and unfortunately defined by political dynasties since the mid-20th century. The concentration of political power and public resources in the country seems to fall within the control of only a handful of families. Local research from the Ateneo de Manila University School of Government even found the phenomenon in the country to be so grave that it felt the need to further classify dynasties into two types: ‘thin’ ones (wherein members of the same political family sequentially take the place of a relative who previously held office) or ‘fat’ dynasties (wherein 2 or more members from a family hold positions simultaneously). The same research found that from 1988 to 2019, Philippine political dynasties have become fatter and their prevalence has increased to more than 10% on both national and local levels.

Looking past the implications this practice may have on undermining equal access to power, dynasties in the long run also threaten an arbitrary expansion of clientelism and patronage to others not belonging to a politician’s personal family unit. ‘Family’ then may not necessarily refer to blood relatives sharing the same household. Instead of looking at merit, a politician may arbitrarily provide a supporter with specific benefits or appoint them to a position with a reasonable belief that they will gain fierce loyalism in return. Consequently, scholars have found a correlation between the limited concentration of political power and corruption risk. This political culture has led to large-scale corruption schemes over the years, such as Hello Garci, the Pork Barrel Scam, and the PhilHealth insurance scandal.

When political dynastism becomes as systematic as it is, politicians may become so detached from their civil duties that they end up ruling with ‘personal’ interests in mind (encompassing both themselves and their extended political family.) As a result, they may create domestic policies that not only benefit them upfront but even perpetuate their stay in power. Thus, presidents may choose to implement popular but not necessarily effective strategies if it means doing so will garner them the most votes. Eventually, they are met with the decision to either keep such votes for themselves or transfer them to a political family member. When the second occurs, civil society remains impacted generations later with descendants from political clans being found to underperform after inheriting voter loyalty without actually having to excel in governance. Altogether, political dynasties seem to have tangible yet negative implications on the strength of a political institution.

Like previous factors, this line of thinking is not exclusive to domestic politics. In the international sphere, presidents may also detach themselves from the previously identified pillars of foreign strategy to focus on short-term political maneuvering rather than international security policy creation. In the West Philippine Sea dispute, this proposal implies that each Philippine head of state may take an extremely contrasting strategy from their predecessor because they see it as a mechanism to ‘distinguish’ themselves.

In the game of politics, it is next to impossible to appease everyone. Different groups may have clashing demands that an incumbent may not be able to fulfill. In turn, others vying for power may exploit the Filipinos’ feelings of frustration by taking a policy they advertise as starkly different from the norm. It becomes their way of passing blame on the incumbent while simultaneously promising representation to a group of people who have long felt marginalized under the existing power structure.

While this action threatens both national and international stability, it is effective in ensuring votes—which is arguably more important in a system where power perpetuation is dependent on popular support. This emphasis on winning elections over actual administration may be observed in Duterte’s changing promises about the West Philippine Sea conflict when he ran for office. In a pre-election interview with Chinese state broadcaster CGTN, he took a more open approach when declaring his desire to “pursue bilateral talks and receive development aid” from the regional power. Contrastingly, the then-presidential candidate captivated the Philippine audience at home by jokingly vowing to “ride a jet ski” while carrying a “flag [that he would] erect on the disputed Spratly Islands” in a local press conference. With differing responses in front of differing audiences, Duterte may have seen his electoral promises as mere ways to appease both sides of the conflict.

Aside from vote-bank politics, another way individual interests manifest themselves as leading the formation of foreign policies is when leaders take personal opportunities in the region and capitalize on the issue at the expense of national sovereignty. One example would be former President Arroyo’s aforementioned 2005 Joint Maritime Seismic Understanding (JSMU) with the China National Offshore Oil Corporation and Vietnam Oil and Gas Corporation. In 2023, the Philippine Supreme Court declared such policy unconstitutional and therefore necessarily void since it allowed wholly-owned foreign corporations to explore the country’s natural resources despite Section 2, Article XII of the Constitution reserving such right “exclusively to Filipino citizens.” More than just violations of formal law, however, critics point out that the timing of the agreement—March 2005—suggests that the JMSU was presented as a quid pro quo for China’s support in other areas of the Philippines at the expense of local businesses. Around the same time, railway and telecommunication projects popped up that many accused of being schemes to gain support from the superpower.

Recently, incumbent President Bongbong Marcos Jr. has also come under fire for plans to resume a similar joint oil and gas exploration deal with China. Learning from Arroyo that obstacles to such a foreign strategy come from the Constitution itself, he controversially ordered advisors to study whether the country’s constitution needed revisions to loosen restraints on foreign investment. His action came as a shock since the country has been long been engrossed in a controversial ‘Cha-Cha,’ a shortened and colloquial term for ‘charter-change’ debates that encompass any effort to revise the Constitution.

Many critics have suggested that the leader’s newfound amiability to the effort could be a power-preserving move, encouraging his allies in the House of Representatives to vote beyond just relaxing the economic provisions. The worry that they might cast their ballot with a desire to preserve their authority seems reasonable as some have already introduced bills to change the president’s term to 5 years with the possibility of one-time reelection, to introduce a ‘voting in tandem’ election so that those belonging to the same political party will take the two highest positions in office, and to expand the presidential line of succession. Overall, Constitutional revisions in favor of Chinese investment at a foreign strategy level may also become an invitation for other changes that would undermine ‘outsiders’ and perpetuate the power of those already holding positions.

Furthermore, the integrity of Cha-Cha has also been questioned with the rise of accusations of corruption and vote buying. According to Republic Act 6735 of the Philippines, amendments to the Constitution may be accomplished by a People’s Initiative signed by at least 10% of the total registered voters in the country and at least 3% of registered voters in each legislative district. With these requirements, current legislature members are being accused of offering around PHP 20 million (USD 35,500) per district in several provinces to buy the signatures needed to push the People’s Initiative. Many find this occurrence to be just another manifestation of leaders manipulating the system for their own benefit at the expense of the stability of both domestic and foreign policy.

From these anecdotes and evidence, there seems to be truth behind the argument that the country’s political culture makes it so its foreign policy becomes just another vehicle for leaders to perpetuate their power through vote-ensuring measures and other opportunities.

Quite literally a ‘Cha-Cha’: The future of a country locked in a political dance

The salience of this discussion lies in the changing views of the country’s current president towards the aforementioned ‘Cha-Cha.’ As he weighs its potential benefits towards lifting economic restrictions against its allegations of being a vehicle for corruption, there lies a challenge to look at the bigger picture of what constitutional change could mean for the future of the geopolitical reality of the Philippines and the rest of Southeast Asia.

While revisions and amendments to the constitution would certainly address the systemic factors that allow for a ‘frequently’ changing foreign policy, it would not account for the normative factors that cause a strategy’s ‘complete reconstruction’ depending on the beliefs, values, and behavior of whoever is in power. As a result, local political analysts warn that efforts to revise the constitution could be a political gimmick to extend one’s duration in office and limit the representation of the opposition.

In the question of geopolitical stability in the region, therefore, a comprehensive 2-pronged approach is necessary if the Philippines wants to create a foreign policy that is simultaneously long-lasting and effective. If only changes to the constitution are adopted, an ethically questionable and opportunistic politician could exploit the system to institutionalize a foreign policy that only benefits themself and their family. On the other hand, if only the dynastic political culture is dismantled, the system would still make it so that a selfless politician’s effective foreign policy could be overturned when their term comes to an end.

To that end, policymakers must address both constitutional provisions and normative factors for the pendulum of Philippine Politics to stop swinging erratically, and in turn, so too the country’s response to the region-defining maritime conflict.