Contrasting Philippines President Benigno Aquino with President-elect Rodrigo Duterte is much easier than finding similarities. Undoubtedly, the Duterte administration will be very different from Aquino's. Duterte has brought communist party nominees into his cabinet but not the Vice President-elect, Leni Robredo. Aquino moved from the Senate to the presidential palace carrying the most powerful surname in Philippine politics. Duterte will, reluctantly, move to Manila from far-flung Davao City where he is mayor. Reflecting these differences, Philippine security policy under Duterte is also likely be very different to the present settings.

Yet, in one important aspect, their security policies could be similar in effect.

The biggest change in security policy introduced by the Aquino administration came in 2013 when it chose to take China to court over maritime rights disputes in the South China Sea, an action led by Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario . This quickly became Aquino’s most famous policy internationally. It gained widespread public support, and was endorsed by the US and key security partners such as Japan.

It also seriously damaged the president’s personal relationship with China leading him to be castigated by Beijing and excluded from China-organised cooperative events with Southeast Asia. Many critics in the Philippines and beyond thought Aquino and del Rosario had pushed China too hard and that the rash Philippines would pay too high a cost.

What could be the biggest change to Philippine security policy under Duterte is already unfolding even before he is inaugurated. Duterte has restarted the peace process, which was largely moribund under Aquino, for the decades-old, nation-spanning communist insurgency. His peace envoys have had their first meeting in Oslo with the self-exiled founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines (and Duterte’s former teacher) Joma Sison, and the chief negotiator for the communists, Luis Jalandoni. The Duterte team is considering releasing political prisoners, a return for Sison, and a very quick negotiation of a peace deal. Negotiating to end the insurgency and the disruption and death it causes across the archipelago will likely gain public and international support.

However, Duterte’s unprecedented offers to the communist insurgents at a time when the insurgency is not a threat to the state has triggered concerns from senators including the elder of the Senate, Juan Ponce Enrile. Former coup plotters turned elected politicians publicly spoke during the election campaign about a potential coup if Duterte goes too far and concedes too much. The Armed Forces of the Philippines has backed Duterte’s plans for restarting the peace process but many may find the release of political prisoners and other olive branches to the militant left bitter pills to swallow.

Aquino’s most significant change to Philippine security policy severely strained relations with China, the country’s largest trading partner, at a minor cost to Aquino and the Philippines. Duterte’s likely biggest change to security policy, if not handled well, could put serious strain on his relationship with elements of the army. Sison himself has warned Duterte of this risk.This should be more worrying for the Philippines than China’s opprobrium and cancelled invitations. 

Duterte’s likely biggest change to Philippine security policy is larger than Aquino’s move. It offers greater rewards, and greater risks as well.

The Lowy Institute has today released Dr Malcolm Cook's Analysis, 'Turning Back? Philippine Security Policy under Duterte'.

Photo by Lito Boras/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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