Will Duterte Really Abandon the U.S. for China?

Disagreements over Duterte's "war on drugs" stand at the heart of a deepening rift, which threatens to upend Washington's relations with its oldest Asian ally.

The year 2016 has been a watershed for Philippine-American relations, in particular, and, in broader terms, for the Sino-American showdown in the South China Sea. At the center of this geopolitical hiccup is no less than the Philippines’ controversial and tough-talking leader Rodrigo Duterte, who has repeatedly threatened to end his country’s century-old military alliance with America. Disagreements over Duterte’s “war on drugs” stand at the heart of a deepening rift, which threatens to upend Washington’s relations with its oldest Asian ally.

Through a cocktail of insults, threats and long-winding tirades, Duterte has underscored his uncompromising policy against the proliferation of illegal drugs. When Washington threatened to nix the $433 million Millennium Challenge Corporation aid package due to “concerns around rule of law and civil liberties in the Philippines" the Filipino leader simply shrugged it off, claiming his country “will not go hungry without the American aid. We are not that desperate.” To up the ante, Duterte claimed that China is more than willing to fill in the aid vacuum. It is precisely this growing reliance on the “China card” that has begun to reshape the geopolitical landscape in the region, particularly in the South China Sea.

Much to the consternation of the security-media-intelligentsia establishment in the Philippines, Duterte has openly declared that in the “play of politics now, I will set aside the arbitral ruling.” That statement marked the culmination of a months-long strategic flirtation between Manila and Beijing since the inauguration of Duterte in June 30. For at least three years, the Philippines, under the Benigno Aquino administration, stood as China’s bitterest rival in the South China Sea. It spearheaded a landmark arbitration case, which promised to mobilize the international community against China’s brazen disregard for international law and the rights of smaller neighboring states in adjacent waters.

With Duterte at the helm, the Philippines immediately made a de facto volte-face, downplaying the arbitration case, portraying it as a mere bilateral issue, and opted for dialogue and engagement rather than confrontation with China. Almost singlehandedly, Duterte has made a mockery of the Obama administration’s Pivot to Asia (P2A) strategy, which has heavily relied on the cooperation of regional allies against China. At some point, Washington worried about a potential “Duterte wave” of defections among regional allies, as Malaysia doubled down on its overtures towards the Middle Kingdom. The equally surprising election of Donald Trump, however, has injected a new dynamic into the picture. Around the region, Trump’s ascent is expected to be accompanied by a more muscular and robust pushback against Chinese maritime assertiveness. In Manila, there is great expectation that relations will improve under the incoming American administration.

The October Surprise

A year earlier, hardly anyone foresaw how consequential Duterte’s election could be in terms of Philippine foreign and regional territorial disputes. In fact, at the beginning, none of the leading Philippine pundits took Duterte’s bid for the presidency any more seriously than American pundits took Trump’s. He was largely dismissed as an uncouth provincial mayor, a “political outsider” devoid of sufficient funds and machinery, and an absolute amateur in national and international affairs. However, Dutetre’s promise of “real change” however was more than empty talk.

His tough rhetoric against illegal drugs and criminal syndicates mobilized the law enforcement agencies even before he officially assumed power. He promised a bloody all-out war, and this is precisely what has happened in recent months. For those who carefully followed his statements and their policy implications during the campaign period, Duterte actually also promised a shift in Philippine foreign policy. As early as February, when he was still struggling in the surveys, Duterte vowed to reset the Philippines’ China policy, particularly vis-à-vis the South China Sea disputes. The firebrand Filipino leader effectively declared that he would be willing to set aside Philippine claims in the area in exchange for improved relations with and massive infrastructure investments from China. Yet barely any major ally, including America, seemed to take those statements seriously. In fact, at the beginning, many failed to take Duterte seriously and literally, when he was being both serious and literal. The writing was on the wall, but few bothered to notice it.