The Philippines' Duterte Is Trying to Become Asia's Erdogan

President Rodrigo R. Duterte poses with 8th Infantry Division troops. Wikimedia Commons/Presidential Communications Operations Office

Here’s what’s behind the fiery leader’s harsh rhetoric.

“I am ready to not really break ties [with America] but we will open alliances with China and . . . Medvedev [Russia],” the Philippines’ firebrand leader Rodrigo Duterte recently exclaimed. “I will open up the Philippines for them to do business, alliances of trade and commerce.” In a matter of months, the Philippines has jumped from likening China to Nazi Germany to flirting with the idea of an alliance with it. Astonishingly, Manila and Beijing are currently negotiating a twenty-five-year bilateral military agreement, allowing Manila to purchase Chinese weapons. By all measures, this is geopolitical drama on steroids.

Embracing Caesarean metaphors, Duterte has said that he will cross the Rubicon, joining the “other side of the ideological barrier” with no point of return. Not short of bluster, he often speaks as if the die is cast when it comes to Philippine foreign relations. To be fair, his astronomical popularity at home, his grip on the Philippine legislature and the sheer force of his political will collectively give Duterte some leeway to introduce significant changes in the country’s domestic and foreign policy landscape.

But what is at stake here? Is the new Philippine leader going the way of Hugo Chavez, actually bent on severing ties with America and plunging his country into the Chinese camp? Or instead, are we witnessing a series of calibrated tirades as a prelude to some reconfiguration in the Philippines-China-America triangle? What is sure for now is that Duterte is reshaping regional geopolitical dynamics and introducing huge uncertainties into the future of America’s pivot to Asia. Yet it is still unlikely that he will end the Philippines’ alliance with its oldest strategic partner.

Upending the Pivot

The new Philippine leader has more or less discarded his predecessor Benigno Aquino’s counter-balancing strategy against China. Almost three months since the conclusion of the Philippines’ landmark arbitration case against China, the Duterte administration has repeatedly sought to downplay the final award, which nullified the bulk of China’s “historic rights” claims, censured its massive and ecologically damaging island-building project in the Spratlys and affirmed the Philippines’ two-hundred-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone claims.

Though the award concerns an arbitration case between the Philippines and China, it carries huge implications for the region and the international order. First of all, Manila’s lawfare strategy proved that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is relevant to the resolution of the South China Sea disputes. Moreover, it also proved that China’s claim and increasingly assertive behavior in the area are not in consonance with prevailing international law. In short, the arbitration case represented a critical juncture in East Asia’s evolving pecking order, potentially turning the tide against China.

Yet the Duterte administration has constantly emphasized that the arbitration case is a purely bilateral issue and, therefore, there is no need to raise it in multilateral fora such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. If anything, the new Philippine government has excruciatingly sought shun mentioning it in its diplomatic statements. “No, I will only bring the [arbitration] issue face-to-face [with China] . . . because if you quarrel with them now, claim sovereignty, make noise here and there, they might not just even want to talk,” Duterte has said, invoking the mantra of pragmatism and conflict avoidance. “Let us create an environment where we can sit down and talk directly, and that is the time I would say, we proceed from here.”

The impact on the regional strategic dynamics is palpable. Almost singlehandedly, Duterte has made it almost impossible for the United States to mobilize multilateral pressure against China, at least in the meantime. As one Brussels-based official at the European External Action Service recently told me, “It was pretty difficult for the European Union to make a strong statement on the final award, when the very country that filed it suddenly changed its tone.” Throughout the past two months, several foreign policy experts and former officials across Southeast Asia have told me that Duterte’s call for engagement with China left little appetite among regional states for confronting the Asian juggernaut on the South China Sea issue.

Pages