Why do some Southeast Asian countries pursue a cooperative stance with great powers and why do others become antagonistic? There are two competing explanations. On the one hand, a good amount of scholarship explains the behavior of Southeast Asian countries using international relations concepts, such as neo-classical realism, hedging, and balancing. On the other hand, others argue that Southeast Asian foreign policy can be explained by domestic politics, pointing to the choices of the leader in power. Both explanations, however, reduce Southeast Asian foreign policy decisions to either a macrostructural factor that imposes decisions upon leaders of Southeast Asian actors across administrations, or as a decision by the leaders that is decontextualised from the political-economic structures in the host country.
In contrast to both explanations, I propose a dynamic framework that considers the political-economic context in the host country, which the IR-centric explanations ignore, and the coalitional reasons at play, which the domestic politics-driven explanations minimise. Using the case of the Philippines, I argue that the country’s foreign policy towards China is largely driven the processes of coalition mobilisation and maintenance. I suggest that foreign policy decisions are determined by the members of the leader’s coalition, using two theoretical points. First, applying the concept of path dependency, the key determinants of the Philippines’ foreign policy position are not just what happens during the President’s term. Rather, it also depends on the pre-regime coalition formation during elections, which expands after elections and during the initial years. In other words, political opportunities, economic motives, and social discontent in the prior administrations will coalesce into a process of coalition formation, which, once elections are finished, will form the official members of the cabinet and the personnel surrounding the President. Second, following formation, coalition maintenance is necessary as well. Working with or against China allows the leader to assuage the political or economic concerns of their coalition members. Chinese projects are either dangled as resources or blocked to assuage the coalition. I illustrate these points using the cases of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (2001-2010), Benigno Aquino III (2010-2016), Rodrigo Duterte (2016-2022), and Bong Bong Marcos (2022-). To strengthen the paper’s external validity, I also examine the two shadow cases of Mahathir Mohamad (2018-2022) and Joko “Jokowi” Widodo (2014-).
About the Speaker
Alvin Camba is an Assistant Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He received his PhD in Sociology from the Johns Hopkins University. He is a faculty affiliate at the Center for International Environment & Resource Policy and the Climate Policy Lab at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. His research has been awarded multiple best research paper awards by several academic networks (International Studies Association, American Sociological Association, GRADNAS), has been published in top development and political economy journals (e.g., Review of International Political Economy, Development and Change, Energy Research and Social Science, etc.), and has contributed to widely-circulated think tank policy papers (e.g. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the International Republican Institute, and Center for International Private Enterprise) on China’s activities in Southeast Asia. He has been cited and/or interviewed by The Financial Times, Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, and other news outlets, and invited to speak at The World Bank, the US State Department, AidData, etc. Most recently, Dr. Camba is part of the Carnegie Corporation of New York-funded Responsible Public Engagement project at the Korbel School. The project investigates, among others, China’s disinformation strategies and investments in rare earths.