Hedging: Duterte's diplomatic balancing act

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Pres. Rodrigo Duterte. (File photo)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — There's a word for what President Rodrigo Duterte appears to be doing on the diplomatic front: "hedging." It means finding the middle ground between high-value relations with other countries, in the case of the Philippines, with the United States and China.

Former ABC News Beijing Bureau Chief Chito Sta. Romana said Duterte's "independent foreign policy" is a shift from the previous administration, and it somewhat baffles the international community. "I think the different actors, the Philippines, the U.S., and China, are definitely in a sort of a diplomatic dance right now," Sta. Romana told CNN Philippines.

READ: DFA: Independent foreign policy is about 'balance'

Sta. Romana is part of the team led by Former President Fidel V. Ramos. The team visited Hong Kong in August to "break the ice" with Ramos' Chinese contacts. It was an effort to revive the erstwhile languishing ties between the two countries. The goal was to pave the way for top-level negotiations on the South China Sea dispute.

"I think the Philippine position before was tight alliance with the U.S. Duterte was shifting, sort of distancing himself a little more from the U.S.," Sta. Romana said of Duterte's recent tirades against Washington. "But it doesn't mean that he is going all the way to an alliance with China. I think this, in international politics, is known as a hedging strategy."

Burden

Duterte bears the burden of pushing for Manila's interests in the South China Sea against Beijing's expansionism. He has chosen to set aside a favorable ruling from a United Nations-sanctioned arbitral tribunal, which Beijing rejects, to leave room for negotiation.

According to Sta. Romana, if Duterte's negative rhetoric towards Washington was aimed at pleasing Beijing, then it appears to be working. "The impact of what's happening right now, I think, is that the Chinese can see that Duterte is seriously moving away, perhaps to a degree, from the U.S. to show his own independent posture. So the Chinese are, in a sense, baffled because their paradigm that the Philippines is a proxy or a pawn of the U.S. is being put under question."

If Duterte convinces China that he is acting independently of the U.S., he gains credibility at the negotiating table. This, Sta. Romana said, increases the Philippines' chances of getting more out of China, which has de facto control of much of the disputed waters.

Shrewd negotiator

The thing is, there's danger in creating distance from the U.S.

Geopolitical analyst Richard Heydarian, author of Asia's New Battlefield: The U.S.A., China and the Struggle for the Western Pacific, believes Manila's alliance with Washington adds leverage to its negotiating posture.

"What is our leverage with China? Why on earth should China compromise with the Philippines knowing the Philippines has no back-up of its own from a superpower and has no capability of its own to deter China?" Heydarian pointed out, Duterte already set aside the arbitration ruling, the only other thing that leverages Manila's claims.

READ: Analysts: Duterte's harsh U.S. rhetoric may hurt alliance

If Manila loses support from Washington, Beijing might take advantage and leave Manila empty-handed. "China cannot be trusted when it comes to the West Philippine Sea. That's a dark truth we are facing here," Heydarian added.

U.S. still dominant

Both Sta. Romana and Heydarian said the U.S. is still the dominant global power - and an alliance with it remains indispensable for the Philippines. Any move to win Beijing over must not be at the expense of Washington.

"I don't see a fundamental realignment of the Philippine foreign policy right now … which means that the Philippines will still maintain its alliance with the U.S. but trying to open channels of communication and improving relations with China," said Sta. Romana.

Heydarian made a warning: "President Duterte is right to say that perhaps we should not be as deferential and dependent on the U.S. as former Filipino presidents have been. That's smart. That's intelligent. But that's just half of the story. The other half of the story is that, do not also completely trust the Chinese and be very careful. If you have no backing, the Chinese will strong-arm you."