opularized in 1961 by German political scientist, Richard Lowenthal, the term “Finlandization” was coined amid Finnish acquiescence to Moscow as a direct result of two wars that it lost against Russia. When taken in the context of Philippines-China security relations, it may well demonstrate the potential of how hedging against a neighboring great power can become a double-edged sword and, ultimately, problematic.
But today, Finland is a highly developed nation and recognized as a leader in the export of technology and promotion of startups in the information and communications technology, cleantech, and biotechnology sectors among many things. Its 2017 centennial celebration of national independence was reflective of this rise from widespread impoverishment to an independent, sovereign, and economically advanced state. Nevertheless, 75 years after it lost territory to Russia and paying $300 million in reparations, it continues to tread a potentially volatile relationship with Moscow. Technically, it gained security isolation from the West as a function of this relationship, but effectively retained its sovereignty and a relatively good amount of latitude in its foreign trade relations.
As a result, peace and prosperity are ostensibly the positive externalities of this arrangement, but it leaves very little room for Helsinki to obtain security guarantees from other countries that may potentially be hostile to Russia despite Finnish membership to the European Union. Hence, amid Russia’s invasion of Crimea and support of Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad against regime change, this manner of strategic acquiescence is increasingly being called into question along with the viability of Finland’s long-term security.
Under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, critics see Manila’s strategic rapprochement with China as the Asian version of Finlandization whereby it is allowing itself to be significantly influenced by a larger and more powerful neighbor. Understandably so, the stakes are high as the country stands to lose territory if Manila ultimately capitulates to China, which would be quite reminiscent of the Finnish experience. Yet, Duterte’s rhetoric in pursuit of Chinese foreign direct investments (FDI) has gradually tempered even as he signed $12 billion worth of trade deals during the Belt and Road Forum (BRF) in May 2019. In fact, three weeks before he flew to Beijing to attend the BRF, Duterte exhorted the Philippine military to prepare for suicide missions as he warned China to back off from Thitu Island, a Philippine-occupied territory in the South China Sea.
Indeed, there are perceptible parallels between the Finnish and the Philippine experience in navigating a complicated relationship with a neighboring great power, which may well provide insights beyond what traditional hedging may allow. But while a general overview may otherwise be prohibitive to extrapolate beyond what is already obvious, a potentially novel behavior in strategic interactions is gradually coming to the fore as the world’s search for an appropriate response to gray zone coercion continues—and it may well come from the least likely actor: the Philippines.
Three weeks before he flew to Beijing to attend the BRF, Duterte exhorted the Philippine military to prepare for suicide missions as he warned China to back off from Thitu Island, a Philippine-occupied territory in the South China Sea.
Submission or Subversion?
On the eve of Manila’s historic victory over its landmark case against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, observers saw it as the beginning of the end. Although the case ended the three-year arbitration that ultimately favored the Philippines, the lack of an enforcement seal intensified the power play between China and the U.S. as a furious Beijing became more aggressive in the South China Sea.
However, under Duterte, Philippines-China relations have been strategically elevated, effectively easing tensions while continuously evolving as the two Asian states pursue warmer bilateral relations on various fronts, recalibrating, if not reversing, the post-arbitration award from The Hague. As a result, the Philippines’ hedging policy increasingly appears to play by Chinese objectives in the South China Sea which, on the surface, follows a single betting approach where Manila appears all-in on playing the China card.
But for China, the win-win solution rests on Manila choosing to set aside the sovereignty issue in the South China Sea, and bandwagon with Beijing as the emerging regional power through joint exploration; joint conservation of the environment; joint development and tourism; and to incessantly engage in bilateral dialogue. This is evidenced by Beijing’s persistent prodding on the use of bilateral diplomacy as a way to legitimize the nine-dash line.
To an increasing extent, China currently appears well on its way in accomplishing its objectives especially in light of its trade relations with the Philippines. Manila’s policy of silence on explicitly asserting The Hague ruling is certainly beneficial albeit contrary to the Philippine military’s behavior on the operational and tactical levels. In this sense, both China and the Philippines are practically engaging in geostrategic ambiguity along the wartime-peacetime spectrums, effectively demonstrating each other’s refusal to budge as a function of their territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Indeed, what appears to be political fumbling and fearfulness on the part of the Duterte administration could be taken as an unsophisticated strategy in dealing with Beijing’s sovereignty-eroding statecraft, offering both a mixture of danger and opportunity that may lead to an extreme case of Finlandization. However, amid the populist leader’s defeatist rhetoric that offers up the Philippines as China’s newest province, or declaring that the contested South China Sea waterway is already in Beijing’s possession, there may be more than meets the eye.
Hard to Get
In many ways, Manila’s pursuit of an independent foreign policy under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte may well be a misnomer. At least on the surface, Manila’s foreign policy choices give more weight to China’s growing regional centrality in the Indo-Pacific, effectively replacing the United States as its avowed hegemonic big brother by slow degrees.
Yet, nearly halfway through Duterte’s presidency, this foreign policy recalibration rather serves to validate America’s invaluable, if not indispensable, role in Philippine national security. Hence, when taken collectively, all indications ostensibly point to Duterte making use of the U.S. and the socialist bloc in his hedging strategy: He anticipates China (and increasingly, Russia) as the Philippines’ economic emancipators, while America remains the balancing great power as Manila pursues the country’s long-deferred military buildup.
Beijing, however, remains measured and ultimately hard to get. Ever since Manila’s initiation of talks between the two capitals in 2016, what China has delivered up to this point is a far cry from the multi-billion-dollar pledges in trade and investments that Beijing made early on.
Consequently, even after an aggressive diplomatic campaign to bring in Chinese FDI, Duterte, for his part, roughly averaged $1 billion per year, which means this campaign has generated investments approximately equivalent to just 1.9 percent of the $170 billion required to finance his “Build! Build! Build!” Program. Judging by how Beijing delivered on its pledges since 2016, even the trade deals that Manila signed with Beijing during the BRF leave much room for skepticism.
Demonstrating the Philippines’ nascent Finlandization, however, is incomplete without measuring the extent of its strategic acquiescence in the realm of Philippines-China security relations. Yet, in contrast to Finland, the Philippines has never been in a conventional military confrontation with China. Nevertheless, potential parallels with Finland’s capitulation to Russia could emanate from the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) obsolescence in comparison to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Additionally, Thitu Island’s rehabilitation has been painfully slow that China’s maritime militia was enough to complicate Philippine claims to it, similarly evoking Finland’s loss of territory to Russia if the AFP were to be pitted against the PLA.
Be that as it may, other Southeast Asian nations such as Vietnam, Malaysia, and Taiwan share the same predicament with the Philippines; and, unlike Finland—that is unable to unilaterally decide on its alliance with the West through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—America’s staying power in the Indo-Pacific provide a buffer against China’s Finlandizing tendency to bend smaller states to its will.
This allows Duterte to loosen up on Beijing while the defense establishment is busy activating the Philippine Army’s Territorial Defense Division, boosting multi-role defense acquisitions, and maintaining U.S. military presence through the Enhance Defense Cooperation Agreement. This validates the proposition that the AFP will remain apolitical (even at the geopolitical level), but will never be comfortable with decoupling from the U.S. in any meaningful way.
The Concept of Philippinedization
But Duterte’s rapprochement with the Chinese could well be his own version of a “Crazy Uncle” strategy: that while hawkish and defiant towards the U.S. since coming to power in 2016, this behavior has in fact served as a starting point for Manila to finally confront the elephant in the room that Washington has long ignored: the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty. Manila’s warming relations with Beijing, in effect, gives the Philippines a semblance of leverage when approaching Washington, and what seemed to be a behavior on the part of Duterte that appear to run counter to Indo-Pacific stability may prove to be beneficial after all.
In the grand scheme of diversifying Manila’s foreign relations, Duterte could either be an anomaly or a trendsetter for succeeding Philippine presidents. But regardless of Manila’s foreign policy direction post-Duterte, his continued campaign to deliver on his threats against the U.S. has yielded potential policy innovations that will benefit the Philippines, allowing it to reshape his country’s nascent Finlandization without reversing it altogether.
Although making sense of this strategy does bring Finlandization to mind, it remains insufficient in some ways. To be sure, Duterte refuses to take part in enforcing the Hague ruling. However, his administration is most likely aware that the ruling stands and the worst thing he could do is to set it aside temporarily, not issue a decree that turns the country’s back on it which is political suicide.
The Philippines also maintains geopolitical flexibility as evidenced by the world’s powerful navies doing the heavy lifting for Manila in enforcing the Hague ruling. Obviously, Manila’s return to the status quo in U.S.-Philippine relations may increase tensions with China, but the costs are not as high as Finland anticipates from Russia if it decides to join NATO.
Lastly, the Philippines does not share a land border that figures in its territorial disputes with China. Unlike Finland that lost territory along its 830-mile border following two wars with Russia, it would have utterly complicated Manila’s territorial claims without the British, Australian, French, Canadian, Japanese, Indian, and U.S. militaries performing freedom-of-navigation operations at will.
But if Finlandization merely reminds Manila of its potentially precarious situation, it may have stumbled upon a policy innovation that, if prudently navigated, could generate positive economic and security externalities for the Philippines. As this entire process plays out, a combination of strategic rapprochement for economic gains and simultaneous military buildup can be observed, leading one to coin the term, “Philippinedization,” which may well be appropriate especially in light of the historic Hague ruling that Duterte temporarily set aside. Its distinctly Filipino characteristic draws from the ruling’s unprecedented nature, allowing Manila to be at the forefront of upholding the UNCLOS and rejecting China’s nine-dash line.
In technical terms, therefore, Philippinedization is the process whereby a weaker state, backed by a powerful country, goes through great lengths in temporarily refraining from opposing a neighboring great power by resorting to economic and diplomatic rapprochements at the strategic level, but strengthening its national security infrastructure on the operational level with an eye for potential conflict in the foreseeable future.
But still, it is questionable whether the Duterte administration has formulated this strategy right from the beginning in 2016. What is clear is that the perceptible body of policy choices that points to Manila increasingly behaving in this manner exists. It now remains to be seen whether the future will favor Philippinedization.