Mr. Duterte’s Asia

Mr. Duterte’s Asia

Rodrigo Duterte, the Filipino firebrand president who has been known for his trademark public insults, has surprisingly announced an end to the US-Filipino military alliance. 

Visiting Beijing last week, President Rodrigo Duterte announced the “separation” of the Philippines from the United States, both economically and militarily. Long a staunch critic of the United States, Duterte’s public remarks threatened to reverse decades of close alliance and cooperation between the US and the Philippines. Such a reversal of Filipino foreign policy would have significant implications for China’s growing sphere of influence as well as the US “pivot to the Pacific”. China has already made significant and unlawful territorial claims in the South China Sea including the construction of military installations on the Spratly Islands, Filipino sovereign territory.

Duterte walking a thin line

Following his trip to Beijing, Mr. Duterte traveled to Japan for meetings with Japanese Prime Minister and staunch US ally Shinzo Abe. In Tokyo, Mr. Duterte carefully walked back his earlier call for a separation from Washington, explaining that he is pursuing a separation of foreign policy rather than the severance of formal, diplomatic ties. Nevertheless, his sharp reversal carries with it significant regional concerns.

It is likely that Mr. Duterte’s break with Washington over economic and military aid will lead to a significant uptick in state-directed investment in the Philippines from Chinese state-owned firms. This action would reflect a similar approach Beijing took to the election of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, who attempted to normalize the country’s relations with its longtime rival. China responded with national investment, but as time passed, it grew restless with the perceived lack of reciprocity from Taipei. In the case of the Philippines, China would likely seek future acceptance from Manila in response to its activities in the Spratly Islands.

While Mr. Duterte has long had an anti-American track record, recent US foreign policy may have inadvertently contributed to closer ties between Manilla and Beijing. Following The Hague’s ruling in favor of Filipino sovereignty over the disputed Spratly Islands, Washington encouraged Manilla to engage Beijing in a discussion rather than resorting to more aggressive measures to preserve their territory. Even while running for the Presidency, Mr. Duterte frequently cited that, from his perspective, the US was not fulfilling its treaty obligations to the Philippines which further encouraged him to rapproach the regional power upon assuming office.

More a symbolical statement than a clean break

Regardless of Mr. Duterte’s preferences, it is unlikely that these overtures to Beijing will significantly alter the Asian balance of power. While China has offered $13.5 billion in aid, it wants from Manilla the one thing Mr. Duterte cannot provide: deference on Chinese control of the Spratlys. Mr. Duterte is popular domestically due to his violent crack-down on drug dealers, but this popularity would not be able to endure Filipino acquiescence to China regarding the disputed islands, particularly following The Hague’s ruling. China is highly unpopular across the Philippines with 65% disapproval rating. Conversely, the United States holds a 64% approval rating. Mr. Duterte’s comments in Tokyo walking back his earlier comments demonstrate his awareness of this domestic political dilemma. He knows that he cannot unilaterally disengage from the two defense pacts the Philippines holds with the United States without legislative approval, approval he would never receive.

Because of this, it is likely much of this inflammatory language, while he may personally be anti-American, is driven by a desire to attract Chinese investment. China has a history of heavy investment in countries with the expectation of returns which do not always materialize. While there is excitement in Beijing, the promised money will not be sufficient to purchase a greater sphere of influence in the South China Sea. The United States will simply wait for Mr. Duterte’s moment to fade.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Jon Lang

Mr. Lang is a Principal at Key Global Advisory, a geo-political and economic risk consultancy. His prior professional experience ranges from strategy consulting at Deloitte to national US policy development for the White House. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Government from Georgetown University, a master’s degree in European Political Economics from the London School of Economics, and is currently completing a global executive MBA at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.