Duterte’s Art of the Deal

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte listens as protesters (not pictured) chant slogans after Duterte delivered his State of the Nation address at the Congress in Quezon city, Metro Manila Philippines July 24, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

America suffers from a credibility gap in the Philippines, and Duterte has exploited this with conviction and verve.

In this sense, Duterte shares significant similarities with other successful strongmen such as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin, who upended the politics of their respective countries by promising an alternative form of governance and political worldview under a firm and decisive style of leadership. Both Erdogan and Putin, for instance, not only rejected the domestic policies of Atatürk’s and Yeltsin’s heirs respectively, but also their Western-looking foreign policy.

But Duterte’s ability to overhaul the Philippines’ business-as-usual politics and position on the South China Sea wouldn’t have been possible absent his domination, albeit tenuous and temporary, of the political class and, to a lesser degree, the state apparatus.

And this brings us to the second factor, which is the “authoritarianization” of Philippine political system. The rapid concentration of power in Dutetre’s hands, as normal institutions of checks and balances fell into a state of hibernation, provided him a unique space to almost unilaterally refashion Philippine foreign policy.

The third factor is the lack of clear American commitment to the Philippines in the South China Sea. Year after year, the Obama administration refused to clarify whether it would come to the Philippines’ rescue in an event of conflict with China in the South China Sea. In terms of military assistance, Washington, Duterte and his supporters fret, has been significantly more generous, both in quantity and quality of military aid, to countries such as Egypt, which neither face a direct threat from external powers nor have a formal alliance with America.

In a survey conducted between December 6–11 of 2016 by Pulse Asia, a leading public opinion polling body in the Philippines, fifty percent of respondents were either undecided (thirty-three percent) or disagreed (seventeen percent) when asked if “security/defense relations with the US have been beneficial to the Philippines.” That is a remarkably high number in a country, which has had a century-old security alliance with America. The implication is clear: America suffers from a credibility gap, and Duterte has exploited this with conviction and verve.

Interestingly, when respondents were asked in December 2016 whether the “Philippines should explore security/defense cooperation with China and Russia than the United States,” forty-seven percent expressed support. And this brings us to the fourth factor: in contrast to the Obama administration’s strategic equivocations, China made it clear, from the very onset, that it is willing to offer the Philippines both maritime and economic concessions in exchange for Manila setting aside the arbitration issue and, if possible, downgrading ties with America.

In 2016, Chinese ambassador to Manila, Zhao Jian, met Duterte more than any other foreign dignitary. During these extensive discussions, which gained pace right after Duterte’s electoral victory, Beijing and Manila discussed most sensitive issues, including the South China Sea disputes. The Asian powerhouse also made the sticks clear: The Philippines risks military confrontation, diplomatic isolation, and significant foregone investment opportunities if it refuses to change gear in the South China Sea.

Senior Western diplomats often quip that their Chinese counterpart has become a de facto adviser to the new Filipino president. Some have described the Chinese envoy, quite derisively, as “the whisperer,” given his unusual proximity to the Filipino president.

Lastly, it is important to take into account Duterte’s “personalization” of foreign policy. Not only he has strengthened his grip on the state apparatus, but he has also injected more of his own personal emotions into the policymaking process as well as diplomatic pronouncements.

As studies show, the emergence of such Sultanistic administrations is usually accompanied by wild swings, often both in rhetoric and substance, in foreign policy, as has been observed in the case of Turkey (under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) and Russia (under Vladimir Putin). His tirades against America, for instance, are largely driven by his personal antipathy toward America, which stretches back to his years as mayor of Davao City. These historical wounds were rekindled when America began to criticize Dutetre’s signature policy, the campaign against drugs, in his first month in office.