Is Rodrigo Duterte a Fool, a Genius—or Both?

October 13, 2016 Topic: Politics Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Skeptics Tags: PhilippinesRodrigo Duterteforeign policyUnited StatesChina

Is Rodrigo Duterte a Fool, a Genius—or Both?

Why the Philippine president is breaking with the conventional wisdom.

Rodrigo Duterte is a fool.

Doesn’t he know that Scarborough Shoal is the place to draw a “ line in the sand ”? That, with the United States, he and the Philippines could make Xi Jinping “ lose face ” there? That the shoal should be the launching point for a new concerted effort to challenge “every Chinese overreach, early and often,” and is a dispute worthy of “indecent” operations? He seems blissfully unaware that China’s activities around the shoal, along with its other maritime territorial claims, are mere precursors to China claiming the entire Pacific Ocean and achieving “ global hegemony .”

It’s not just foreign voices. Duterte is ignoring Filipinos too. His own predecessor took China to the Hague Tribunal and won just a few months ago—an advantage that Duterte is calmly throwing away. A Filipino law professor opined last April that “Southeast Asian states will not quietly surrender sovereign rights guaranteed by international law. Against overwhelming power, the only logical recourse is to gravitate closer together, and join with external powers.” The expert consensus is overwhelming : regional governments “cannot back down because that risks encouraging China to be more aggressive still.”

Yet, in the teeth of the evidence, the government of the Philippines has recently shown itself to be uninterested in drawing lines in the sand, making China lose face, challenging China’s territorial claims or joining the United States as a junior partner in checking China’s rise. To the contrary, President Rodrigo Duterte has declared that he would pursue an “independent posture and independent foreign policy.” Here’s what that policy looks like.

First, the Philippines has been signaling that it will conduct bilateral territorial negotiations with China, as opposed to America’s preferred method of lawsuits or multilateral discussions. Bilateral talks on Chinese investment, infrastructure and trade are being planned first, to promote cooperation before tackling the more difficult territorial issues. “The natural effect of engaging China in other areas of concern will precisely open the door for more open discussions of the [maritime] dispute with the view of resolving the dispute peacefully,” Perfecto Yasay, the Philippine secretary of foreign affairs, said in September . This sort of practical engagement will evidently begin next week, as Duterte visits China with hundreds of business executives in tow.


Second, President Duterte has declared that the Philippines will no longer conduct patrols with the United States in the South China Sea: “We will not join any expedition or patrolling the sea. I will not allow it because I do not want my country to be involved in a hostile act.” Lest any doubts remain, the Philippines’ defense secretary has since confirmed it .

Third, Duterte has indicated that he wants U.S. Special Forces to leave the Philippines, and is looking to China and Russia for arms purchases.

Why is Duterte pursuing such irrational policies ? He apparently rejects the three myths that have seduced the American commentariat. What myths?

1. China could gracefully submit to the Hague ruling.

2. Amped-up American and allied “resolve” would force China to comply.

3. China’s rejection of the ruling signifies its rejection of international order.

Disagreeing with the ruling of a tribunal in The Hague (not, by the way, the UN, as some erroneously claim ) hardly expresses an intention to destroy international society or dominate the Pacific. Disagreeing with your local court doesn’t mean that want to overthrow your nation’s government. Duterte isn’t irrational. He prefers to work with China to resolve the dispute in a mutually beneficial way. He agrees with an influential Filipino commentator : “Relations between China and the Philippines should go beyond the South China Sea issue.”

Scarborough Shoal has become an abstraction for everything commentators dislike in China: North Korea’s nuclear program, “aerial intrusions” in the East China Sea, “seaborne incursions” in Okinawa Prefecture, human-rights abuses, aircraft demonstrations when U.S. defense secretaries are visiting Beijing, the “calculated humiliation” at the G-20 summit, “economic and trade matters,” and “environmental degradation” in the South China Sea. Among such commentators, the solution is obvious : reinforced U.S. primacy, stronger regional alliances and the trumpeting of America’s “undoubted ability to prevail.”

To make Scarborough Shoal—or any other rock or reef of the South China Sea—serve as an abstract picture containing every complaint the United States has about China is foolish and dangerous. Political scientists have shown that territory is already the single issue any two states are most likely to fight over. Packing all other issues of contention into a territorial dispute—an exercise in grab-bag hawkishness—is a certain way to enflame the territorial dispute and to make it unsolvable.

There is nothing new here. In the spring of 1913, Russian foreign minister Sergey Sazonov told Serbian prime minister Nikola Pašić, who was eager to extend Serbian territory into the former Ottoman state of Albania, that Russia was not going to risk a war with Austria-Hungary over a few small towns. Pašić replied :