UNITED NATIONS • After years of shifting the Philippines closer to China, President Rodrigo Duterte appears to be leaning back towards the United States.
The 75-year-old leader on Tuesday gave his most forceful defence yet of a 2016 arbitration 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, Mr Duterte said the decision "is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon", adding: "We firmly reject attempts to undermine it." He did not, however, name 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."
Mr Duterte had resisted raising the issue of 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 its assertiveness in the South China Sea and the Philippine economy suffers due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
There is now "more space for those critical of China to be heard and to have influence", said Dr Malcolm Cook, visiting senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore and coordinator of its Philippines project, adding that officials known to be more hawkish on China have stepped to the fore while Mr Duterte has dialled 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."
In June, the Philippines suspended its decision to end a 22-year-old deal facilitating joint military exercises with the US while starting to raise criticism of China's moves in disputed waters. And Mr Duterte this month pardoned a US marine found guilty in 2015 of killing a transgender Filipina.
This week, Manila welcomed the US and other nations to play a role in maintaining security in the South China Sea, following a similar statement from Vietnam. China has accused the US of intervening in territorial disputes and called it "the biggest driver of militarisation of the South China Sea".
"I can swear to you, Western powers will be in the South China Sea," Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin told lawmakers on Monday. "We believe in the balance of power, that the freedom of the Filipino people depends on the balance of power in the South China Sea."
Philippine officials have framed the recent moves as a reflection of the country's independent foreign policy more than siding with one particular camp. The US alliance with the Philippines is its oldest in the region, with a mutual defence treaty signed in 1951 stipulating that either nation will respond militarily in the event of an attack on the other.
Mr Duterte "upholds the Philippine national interest and no other country's interest", presidential spokesman Harry Roque said in a text message. Earlier this month, Mr Roque told reporters that Mr Duterte may have pardoned the US marine to curry favour with Washington in an effort to gain access to coronavirus vaccines.
The quest to secure a vaccine shows that Mr Duterte is not abandoning Beijing: He said this month he would prioritise China and Russia in sourcing a Covid-19 vaccine over Western drugmakers, which require cash advances in exchange for supplies. The Philippines has been hit with the most infections in South-east Asia with more than 294,000 known cases, and its economy is projected to fall by as much as 6.6 per cent this year.
Mr Duterte is "hedging his bets more at a time when he wants to keep several options open for access to vaccine and the Philippines is coming under more pressure from China in the South China Sea", said Mr Peter Mumford, South-east & South Asia practice head at risk consultancy Eurasia Group.
"Duterte is ideologically more drawn to China than he is the US, but his foreign policy is also driven by political and economic pragmatism."