The Buzz

Rodrigo Duterte: A Bull in a China Shop (And the U.S., Australia and Others Will Have to Pick Up the Pieces)

In announcing a separation from the US, the Philippine’s President Duterte recently flagged a closer relationship with China, stating, "America has lost…I’ve realigned myself in your [China’s] ideological flow." Although Duterte subsequently walked back from his position, the perception is emerging that the Philippines under Duterte is at best charting a more independent path, and at worst, decisively aligning with China.

On the South China Sea, Duterte indicated that he’ll put aside the outcome of the Arbitral Tribunal and engage with Beijing bilaterally. In an apparent quid pro quo, Chinese Coast Guard vessels have left the Scarborough Shoal. This implies reward for Manila for aligning itself with Beijing. The risk is other ASEAN states will seek similar benefit, further undermining the already fragile ASEAN unity. Beijing already has enough influence over Laos and Cambodia to make consensus over ASEAN joint communiqués on the South China Sea impossible. Having the Philippines in its pocket would allow Beijing’s to divide and weaken ASEAN, and the Philippines’ leadership of ASEAN in 2017 could further enhance Beijing’s influence.

Duterte also suggested reviewing the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which allows the US regular access to five Philippines bases under the 2011 Manila Declaration. Even if EDCA survives, an unpredictable and hostile Duterte, motivated by a lifetime of personal resentment towards America, could cause severe problems for Washington. His threats to end joint US–Filipino naval patrols and US Special Forces operations against Islamist groups in Mindanao would sour relations even further. Purchasing Russian and Chinese military hardware would probably end the US–Philippines defense relationship. It would certainly tear a hole in the Obama’s rebalance to Asia.

Clearly the next US administration can’t simply continue with the same policy as before. A Philippines realignment would be a huge blow to US interests in Asia, and if TPP ratification also fails, the confluence of two such important events would introduce greater uncertainty to what would follow a failed US Rebalance. The US needs a new strategy for Asia, but any policy change will take time to emerge after the new president’s inauguration, and may be outpaced by events—as was dramatically demonstrated by Duterte’s time in Beijing last week.