Will Rodrigo Duterte Revolutionize the Philippines' Foreign Policy?

Image: “Cropped photo of Davao City Vice Mayor Rodrigo Duterte while conversing with President Benigno S. Aquino III during the Meeting with Local Leaders and the Community at the Rizal Park in San Pedro Street, Davao City on Wednesday (March 06, 2013).”

He's the most powerful president in recent memory.

“The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing,” nineteenth-century intellectual Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr once lamented about the state of French politics. In the realm of foreign policy, observers do tend to adopt a similarly skeptical attitude when new leaders come into power on the back of bombastic campaign-trail statements and cliché promises of transformative change. Throughout my extensive discussions with various senior policy-makers and diplomats from across the Asia-Pacific region, I have noticed a similar attitude towards the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ new firebrand president. Yet, there is growing reason to expect a potentially seismic shift in Philippine foreign policy under the new administration.

With Duterte rapidly consolidating his position at the center of the Philippine political system, he is also in a strong position to introduce a significant foreign-policy reset, particularly with respect to China and the United States. Unlike his predecessor, Benigno Aquino, he has extended an olive branch to China, deploying former president Fidel Ramos to conduct backdoor negotiations with the Asian powerhouse. He has also welcomed massive Chinese investments in the realm of public infrastructure and downplayed territorial disputes in the South China Sea, emphasizing the necessity of separating areas of conflict from zones of convergence in mutual interests. Meanwhile, he has shown limited reticence with expressing discontent with perceived lack of American military support amid the maritime spats.

With respect to relations with America, Duterte has broken one diplomatic taboo after the other.

At one point, Duterte went so far as stating: “I would only ask the US ambassador, ‘are you with us [in the South China Sea]?’” His open expression of skepticism -- a remarkable departure from his predecessors -- seems to have gained growing support among the Philippine public as well as intelligentsia, even though America enjoys astronomically high approval ratings in the Southeast Asian country. In fact, since the campaign period, Duterte, a self-described ‘socalist’, has emphasized his preference for a more ‘independent’ foreign policy, which effectively means less reliance on America. Shortly after his election victory, Duterte declared, "I will be chartering a [new] course [for the Philippines] on its own and will not be dependent on the United States."

During the campaign period, Duterte called on both American and Australian ambassadors to ‘shut their mouths’ and threatened to sever ties if elected after the two Western diplomats expressed dismay over the Filipino politician’s controversial remarks. For fiercely independent-minded Duterte, foreign powers were ‘interfering’ in the Philippines’ domestic affairs. More recently, Duterte’s insulting remarks, during another off-the-cuff episode, about US ambassador Philip Goldberg provoked diplomatic censure from Washington, which didn’t hesitate to also criticize Duterte’s full-fledged anti-crime campaign. But Duterte has refused to apologize. Upon closer inspection, what one discovers is not only some ephemeral quarreling among old friends, but instead a steady and gradual recalibration in Philippine relations with both America and China. Duterte could very well become the most consequential president in Philippine foreign policy -- and foreign powers and old allies should acknowledge it.

The New Caudillo