Coming to the South China Sea (and Beyond): Duterte’s ‘Shock and Awe’ Diplomacy

September 14, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: South China SeaChinaThe PhilippinesRodrigo DuterteScarborough Shoal

Coming to the South China Sea (and Beyond): Duterte’s ‘Shock and Awe’ Diplomacy

Are Manila and Beijing about to become closer? 

“I will be charting a [new] course [for the Philippines] on its own and will not be dependent on the United States,” declared Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ firebrand president after winning a landslide victory earlier this year. Under the leadership of newly-minted president, the Philippines is rapidly transforming its foreign policy predisposition.

For those, who have underestimated his ability to reconfigure existing relations with the Southeast Asian country’s most enduring ally, the United States, the past two weeks have been a rude awakening. Rapidly consolidating power over key institutions of the state, and backed up by robust support among various civil society groups, Duterte is in a position to redirect the Philippines’ foreign policy like none of his predecessors.

“I’m really a rude person. I’m enjoying my last time as a rude person,” Duterte famously promised earlier. “When I become president, when I take my oath of office . . . there will be a metamorphosis.” It was a statement of re-assurance that compelled many to (mistakenly) presume that Duterte’s tough campaign-period rhetoric – including those directed at America – was nothing but a clever gimmick.

So when Duterte embarked on his global diplomatic debut, attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, many were expecting a more subdued and statesmanlike Duterte. Instead, the world witnessed a Hyde and Jekyll diplomatic behavior. Duterte, who accepted the Philippines’ (rotational) chairmanship of the regional group, gracefully embraced his fellow Asian leaders, who appreciated his pragmatism on the South China Sea disputes and relations with China, while going on the offensive against the United States President Barack Obama, who was on his final official trip to Asia.

After uttering what appeared as expletives against the American president, the much-anticipated Obama-Duterte bilateral meeting was cancelled. Shortly after, amid growing panic over a potential diplomatic meltdown, Manila released a statement of “regret”, while the Obama administration reiterated that U.S.-Philippine relations remain “rock solid.” Duterte clarified that his foul-mouthed remarks weren’t direct at Obama, who reassured his Filipino partners that he didn’t take Duterte’s insulting remarks personally.

Yet, just when everyone thought that the damage control efforts were bearing fruit, Duterte once again went on the offensive. And most recently has even asked, albeit rhetorically so far, American special forces in the troubled region of Mindanao to get out of the country. He has also made it clear that he is setting his sights on more robust ties, including military, with eastern powers of Russia and China. In fact, Duterte is expected to embark on his state visit to China, a first by any Filipino leader, in coming weeks. In a span of months, Philippine-US relations have gone from special and sacrosanct to uncertain and jittery. And this seems to be the new normal in one of the most intimate and enduring bilateral relations on the planet.

New Redlines:

To be fair, Duterte, a self-described ‘socialist’ with decades-long ties with the leftist movement in the Philippines, has been making spicy remarks against America for quite sometime. During the campaign period, when Duterte came under fire for an inappropriate joke, he asked the American ambassador, Philip Goldberg, to shut his mouth.

He even threatened to, upon election, sever ties if Western countries continue to, in his mind, interfere in domestic affairs of the Philippines. Two months into office, Duterte couldn’t prevent himself from expressing annoyance at the outgoing American envoy, going so far as uttering a shocking gay slur against him. In response, Washington not only criticized the inappropriate remarks, but also began to criticize Duterte’s ‘shock and awe’ campaign against proliferation of drugs. So when Obama was asked about his upcoming meeting with Duterte in ASEAN, the issue of human rights was constantly emphasized.

This most certainly ticked off the Filipino leader, who has shown little patience for any criticism of what he considers as an existential policy response to the drug menace in the Southeast Asian country. It was against this backdrop that Duterte made unfavorable remarks about the American leader. And he has, over the past week, been on the constant offensive against America.

During the East Asia Summit, with Obama in attendance, Duterte didn’t hesitate to make a impromptu speech on America’s colonial atrocities against the Filipino people. He even took out a picture of a massacre of Filipinos at the hands of the occupying force to prove his point. In the end, there was no shaking of hands between the leaders of the two treaty allies. The message was clear: the new Filipino leader is in no mood for American criticisms, and is willing to stand up to them. It was an unmistakable expression of ‘independence’ that was not lost on other participants, including China.

Reaching Out to China:

Despite the bitter territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and the Philippines’ recent landmark legal victory against China, Duterte constantly emphasized the need for dialogue, peaceful engagement and bilateral negotiations with China. His pragmatic stance surely sat well with many ASEAN leaders, who have excruciatingly shunned any collision with the Chinese goliath.

Upon his return to the Philippines, after a working visit to Jakarta shortly following the ASEAN summit, Duterte once again went on the offensive. This time he suggested that maybe he is even willing to re-examine the fundamental of bilateral relations with America, namely military agreements.

In another characteristic tirade, he asked American Special Forces in Mindanao to exit the country. “For as long as we stay with America, we will never have peace [in Mindanao],” declared Duterte, taking a lot of people in the security establishment and the broader public by surprise. “We might as well give [Mindanao] up.”

To some, the Filipino leader was partly blaming America for the conflict, and was suggesting a potential downgrade in bilateral military ties. Though it is unlikely that Duterte’s statement was a policy pronouncement, his constant barrage of criticisms against America has been no less than startling for many of his countrymen.

After all, the Philippines is the world’ most pro-American society, while the bulk of the Philippine security, media and intellectual establishment is entwined with America. To emphasize his preference for a more diversified Filipino foreign policy, Duterte suggested greater military cooperation with China and Russia.

“China said they are worried about me. So they offered to give airplanes,” claimed Duterte, who has constantly emphasized the necessity for more stable, if not cordial, ties with Beijing. “If we want to buy from one source [China], if it’s free, why won’t we take it? Thanks.”

He has even confirmed that he intentionally skipped the US-ASEAN summit. With Duterte set to visit Beijing in search of a modus vivendi in the South China Sea, and eager to re-invite large-scale Chinese investments in the Philippines, it is possible that Duterte is simply signaling his foreign policy independence to gain Beijing’s trust. But even if the Philippines continues its existing security agreements with America, few can deny that bilateral relations have entered a new phase. Welcome to the post-American world.

This first appeared in AsiaTimes here

Image: Sunset in the South China Sea. Flickr/@bvi4092