Trump's Statecraft To-Do List: Deter Duterte

Vietnamese President Trần Đại Quang and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Wikimedia Commons/Presidential Communications Operations Office

Can American statecraft sway Manila’s support for China?

The Chinese statecraft is clear and simple: Offer poor, smaller neighboring countries economic incentives in exchange for strategic acquiescence on sensitive issues, including territorial disputes. China has quite successfully deployed this strategy towards Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, which rarely openly criticizes Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea.

Other countries like Vietnam, South Korea and Indonesia have fought back with growing vigor in recent years, despite their deep economic interdependence with China. The Philippines, however, has rapidly shifted gears in the past year, abandoning resistance in favor of engagement under Duterte’s watch. Throughout my conversations with senior officials of major countries across the Asia-Pacific region in recent months, it seems the consensus is that it is just a matter of time before China moves ahead with consolidating its administrative control over the Scarborough Shoal.

The relevance of the disputed land features lies in the fact that it is currently the sole missing piece in the “strategic triangle,” which would allow Beijing to dominate the South China Sea and more effectively restrict freedom of military navigation and overflight of competing claimant states such as the Philippines and Vietnam and strategic rivals such as the United States, Japan, India and Australia.

Bereft of sufficient military capabilities, the Philippines, however, has limited options. As Duterte put it in brutal honesty, “So what do you want me to do? Declare war against China? I can, but we’ll lose all our military and policemen tomorrow, and we are a destroyed nation.” At this point, much will depend on how far allies, such as Washington, DC, and like-minded partners, such as Tokyo, are willing to offer in concrete assistance should Manila choose to fully resist Chinese designs in the Scarborough Shoal. So far, the Trump administration has yet to send a single major senior official to Southeast Asia and the Philippines. Not a very encouraging situation for allies in fear and trembling.

Richard Javad Heydarian is an assistant professor in international affairs and political science at De La Salle University. He previously served as a policy advisor at the Philippine House of Representatives.

Image: Vietnamese President Trần Đại Quang and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Wikimedia Commons/Presidential Communications Operations Office

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