Rodrigo Duterte Is Key to China's 'Post-American' Vision for Asia

Rodrigo Duterte delivers his message to the Filipino community in Vietnam. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

“Dutertenomics” will require huge investment from abroad. Beijing is the perfect patron.

“The future of the Philippines is in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and in Asia,” declared Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte during his early May keynote speech at the World Economic Forum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. For the controversial Philippine president, the world is ineludibly entering a post-American world, paving the way for his own vision of an “Asia for Asians.” Despite facing stiff opposition at home, the firebrand leader has forged ahead with his pivot to the east, especially China and, to a lesser degree, Russia. There are two factors that lie at the heart of Duterte’s “Looking East” foreign-policy strategy. First is his growing personal vexation with the West’s criticism of his brutal campaign against illegal drugs, which will likely be followed by sanctions and other punitive measures. Second is the need to diversify the Philippines’ highly concentrated (in the West and Japan) strategic and economic relations.

The vast majority of the Philippines’ arms (more than 70 percent) come from the United States, the bulk of which are based on outdated technology and largely oriented towards counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations. Traditionally, the European Union, Japan and the United States have also been responsible for almost the entirety of Overseas Development Assistance to and, to a lesser degree, Foreign Direct Investment stock in the Philippines. Duterte is interested in relatively affordable and advanced weaponry from alternative suppliers such as Russia and China. As veto-bearing members of the UN Security Council, Beijing and Moscow can also provide Duterte protection against external pressure and (remotely) possible prosecution under the aegis of the International Criminal Court. The Philippine leader is also interested in tapping the two giants’ assistance in stemming piracy and terrorism in the Sulu and Celebes Sea regions, which have been racked by a deluge of kidnap-and-ransom operations by Islamic State–affiliated groups such as Abu Sayyaf.

Eager to diversify his international patrons, Duterte embarked on back-to-back trips to Beijing and Moscow this month, hoping to bag both diplomatic support as well as tangible economic and defense agreements. While the trip to Russia will at most slightly upgrade a historically anemic relationship, and allow Putin to poke Washington in the eye by openly flirting with its oldest treaty ally in Southeast Asia, Duterte’s visit to China was of far greater importance.

Last month, the Philippine government launched the “Dutertenomics” initiative, an ambitious plan that aims to overhaul the Southeast Asian country’s public infrastructure. The tag price is a whopping $167 billion over the next five years, a huge sum that could not be solely financed by limited domestic fiscal resources. In particular, Beijing is expected to shoulder twelve big-ticket projects worth a total of $4.4 billion. Japan and the Tokyo-dominated Asian Development Bank (ADB) will be the other major partners in Duterte’s grand economic project, which aims to usher in a “golden age” of infrastructure development in the country.

New Silk Road Vision

Expecting China to feature as a major partner for the national development, Duterte visited China for the second time in less than a year to attend the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) mega-summit in Beijing, which saw the participation of around a hundred countries, including twenty-nine government leaders. During the event, Chinese president Xi Jinping pledged $113 billion to directly connect the industrial heartland of China to western Europe via new maritime and land-based infrastructure networks, initially dubbed the New Silk Road project.