The Skeptics

Is Rodrigo Duterte a Fool, a Genius—or Both?

Rodrigo Duterte is a fool.

Doesn’t he know that Scarborough Shoal is the place to draw a “line in the sand”? That, with the United States, he and the Philippines could make Xi Jinping “lose face” there? That the shoal should be the launching point for a new concerted effort to challenge “every Chinese overreach, early and often,” and is a dispute worthy of “indecent” operations? He seems blissfully unaware that China’s activities around the shoal, along with its other maritime territorial claims, are mere precursors to China claiming the entire Pacific Ocean and achieving “global hegemony.”

It’s not just foreign voices. Duterte is ignoring Filipinos too. His own predecessor took China to the Hague Tribunal and won just a few months ago—an advantage that Duterte is calmly throwing away. A Filipino law professor opined last April that “Southeast Asian states will not quietly surrender sovereign rights guaranteed by international law. Against overwhelming power, the only logical recourse is to gravitate closer together, and join with external powers.” The expert consensus is overwhelming: regional governments “cannot back down because that risks encouraging China to be more aggressive still.”

Yet, in the teeth of the evidence, the government of the Philippines has recently shown itself to be uninterested in drawing lines in the sand, making China lose face, challenging China’s territorial claims or joining the United States as a junior partner in checking China’s rise. To the contrary, President Rodrigo Duterte has declared that he would pursue an “independent posture and independent foreign policy.” Here’s what that policy looks like.

First, the Philippines has been signaling that it will conduct bilateral territorial negotiations with China, as opposed to America’s preferred method of lawsuits or multilateral discussions. Bilateral talks on Chinese investment, infrastructure and trade are being planned first, to promote cooperation before tackling the more difficult territorial issues. “The natural effect of engaging China in other areas of concern will precisely open the door for more open discussions of the [maritime] dispute with the view of resolving the dispute peacefully,” Perfecto Yasay, the Philippine secretary of foreign affairs, said in September. This sort of practical engagement will evidently begin next week, as Duterte visits China with hundreds of business executives in tow.

Second, President Duterte has declared that the Philippines will no longer conduct patrols with the United States in the South China Sea: “We will not join any expedition or patrolling the sea. I will not allow it because I do not want my country to be involved in a hostile act.” Lest any doubts remain, the Philippines’ defense secretary has since confirmed it.

Third, Duterte has indicated that he wants U.S. Special Forces to leave the Philippines, and is looking to China and Russia for arms purchases.

Why is Duterte pursuing such irrational policies? He apparently rejects the three myths that have seduced the American commentariat. What myths?

1. China could gracefully submit to the Hague ruling.

2. Amped-up American and allied “resolve” would force China to comply.

3. China’s rejection of the ruling signifies its rejection of international order.