Coming to the South China Sea (and Beyond): Duterte’s ‘Shock and Awe’ Diplomacy
“I will be charting a [new] course [for the Philippines] on its own and will not be dependent on the United States,” declared Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ firebrand president after winning a landslide victory earlier this year. Under the leadership of newly-minted president, the Philippines is rapidly transforming its foreign policy predisposition.
For those, who have underestimated his ability to reconfigure existing relations with the Southeast Asian country’s most enduring ally, the United States, the past two weeks have been a rude awakening. Rapidly consolidating power over key institutions of the state, and backed up by robust support among various civil society groups, Duterte is in a position to redirect the Philippines’ foreign policy like none of his predecessors.
“I’m really a rude person. I’m enjoying my last time as a rude person,” Duterte famously promised earlier. “When I become president, when I take my oath of office . . . there will be a metamorphosis.” It was a statement of re-assurance that compelled many to (mistakenly) presume that Duterte’s tough campaign-period rhetoric – including those directed at America – was nothing but a clever gimmick.
So when Duterte embarked on his global diplomatic debut, attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, many were expecting a more subdued and statesmanlike Duterte. Instead, the world witnessed a Hyde and Jekyll diplomatic behavior. Duterte, who accepted the Philippines’ (rotational) chairmanship of the regional group, gracefully embraced his fellow Asian leaders, who appreciated his pragmatism on the South China Sea disputes and relations with China, while going on the offensive against the United States President Barack Obama, who was on his final official trip to Asia.
After uttering what appeared as expletives against the American president, the much-anticipated Obama-Duterte bilateral meeting was cancelled. Shortly after, amid growing panic over a potential diplomatic meltdown, Manila released a statement of “regret”, while the Obama administration reiterated that U.S.-Philippine relations remain “rock solid.” Duterte clarified that his foul-mouthed remarks weren’t direct at Obama, who reassured his Filipino partners that he didn’t take Duterte’s insulting remarks personally.
Yet, just when everyone thought that the damage control efforts were bearing fruit, Duterte once again went on the offensive. And most recently has even asked, albeit rhetorically so far, American special forces in the troubled region of Mindanao to get out of the country. He has also made it clear that he is setting his sights on more robust ties, including military, with eastern powers of Russia and China. In fact, Duterte is expected to embark on his state visit to China, a first by any Filipino leader, in coming weeks. In a span of months, Philippine-US relations have gone from special and sacrosanct to uncertain and jittery. And this seems to be the new normal in one of the most intimate and enduring bilateral relations on the planet.
To be fair, Duterte, a self-described ‘socialist’ with decades-long ties with the leftist movement in the Philippines, has been making spicy remarks against America for quite sometime. During the campaign period, when Duterte came under fire for an inappropriate joke, he asked the American ambassador, Philip Goldberg, to shut his mouth.
He even threatened to, upon election, sever ties if Western countries continue to, in his mind, interfere in domestic affairs of the Philippines. Two months into office, Duterte couldn’t prevent himself from expressing annoyance at the outgoing American envoy, going so far as uttering a shocking gay slur against him. In response, Washington not only criticized the inappropriate remarks, but also began to criticize Duterte’s ‘shock and awe’ campaign against proliferation of drugs. So when Obama was asked about his upcoming meeting with Duterte in ASEAN, the issue of human rights was constantly emphasized.