Just in the past week, newly-elected Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has received much media attention for labeling United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon as a ‘devil’ and raising the middle finger to the European Union’s recent condemnation of his drug war in a televised speech. Often appearing in the headlines in recent months due to his controversial and often expletive-laden comments (or insults) to international allies and opponents alike, President Duterte’s style of public address has been understood by various political commentators as a tactic to drum up domestic popular support. However, this interpretation ignores the other driving factors behind his actions.
I believe that President Duterte’s motivations in adopting such a public stance stem not from an entirely illogical attraction towards brash and offensive statements, but rather emphasize a radically new game of diplomatic brinkmanship on his part. In trumpeting a sense of masculine bravado, President Duterte is not just playing to a domestic audience; he also seeks to present a (false) position of strength in his nation’s international dealings. While I refrain from casting judgment on the effectiveness of his actions, it is clear that such tactics come with huge risks. For example, President Obama sent a strong message several weeks ago, when he cancelled a key meeting with President Duterte on the sidelines of the recent ASEAN summit in Laos, citing a concern over the leader’s ability to conduct a constructive, productive conversation. This followed a public furor over Duterte’s use of the phrase ‘putang ina’ (literally ‘son of a whore’ in Tagalog, but often used as an interjection rather than as a direct insult) while defending his drug policies from President Obama’s criticism. Ultimately, if Duterte’s statements are meant to be calculated political gambles, then (in this instance at least) they clearly have not succeeded in furthering the Philippines’ national interests.
Such seemingly arbitrary actions may be explained by President Duterte’s lack of foreign policy experience at the national level, having only been a long-serving mayor of the city of Davao before being catapulted to the national stage in the Philippines’ recent elections. Indeed, he rode to power on a slew of domestic promises (particularly with regards to the drug problem in the Philippines), rather than any strong focus on external issues. This strategy reflected his own personal background and local track record in Davao (having carried out harsh but generally popular crackdowns during his term as mayor) but also exposes his foreign policy inexperience.
It is also clear that many of President Duterte’s own staff and cabinet are not marching in-step with his new strategy. Following President Duterte’s call on September 12th for all American troops to leave Mindanao, the Philippine military and Foreign Ministry issued quick responses reaffirming Philippine commitment to existing treaty obligations (stopping short of complete rebuttals). Hence, Duterte’s statements have an added element of risk, with the ink barely dry on the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement signed by Duterte’s predecessor President Aquino, in 2014. At its core, the EDCA allows the US to station troops on a rotating basis for extended stays at five bases throughout the Philippines, with one of those five bases situated in northern Mindanao.
As such, despite the potential benefits of such a diplomatic gamble, President Duterte risks jeopardizing the work of previous administrations, particularly the closer ties fostered with the US during his predecessor President Aquino’s term. Aside from the EDCA, this also includes the Aquino administration’s success in pushing for the Philippines’ South China Sea dispute with China to be arbitrated at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (with the verdict deemed by mainstream media outlets as a huge success for Philippine claims in the South China Sea).
Alternately, President Duterte also runs the risk of falling into the same pitfalls of previous administrations. Former President Gloria Arroyo’s term in office was marked by endemic corruption, even as massive investment and trade deals were signed with China (with China agreeing to very generous terms). This included China’s financing of a railway in Luzon, a Chinese state-run telecom giant ZTE Corp-led deal to build an internet network, and the rehabilitation of a dam. Ultimately, these deals represented a tacit quid pro quo agreement with the Arroyo administration, with an accompanying bilateral deal to jointly explore for oil in disputed South China Sea waters. Nonetheless, its legitimacy was undermined by the heavy kickbacks to Filipino businessmen involved, including a close ally of President Arroyo and her husband. Furthermore, part of the waters designated for joint exploration were designated as Philippine territory under the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea, representing a clear violation of the Philippine constitution. President Duterte’s recent statements express a strong willingness to work with China. This may be interpreted as a desire to court Chinese investment in exchange for other concessions. Indeed, when viewed together with his dramatic but ultimately unsubstantiated statements (such as his plans to ride a jet ski out to the Spratlys and erect the Filipino flag), President Duterte’s administration may be hinting at a softening Philippine position on the South China Sea, provided China matches Philippine demands in other areas. Such goals play into China’s larger geostrategic plans. Under President Xi Jinping, China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative has sought to establish China’s growing presence on the international stage, and deepen its cooperation and connectivity with regional partners. Viewed from another angle, this presents a form of (mainly economic) leverage that China can use to advance its interests, specifically in the South China Sea. Despite cautious optimism following former President Ramos’ visit to Hong Kong in August, President Duterte’s strategy risks compromising Philippine sovereignty even further, or even opening the door to further accusations of corruption (a tactic to which China has proven not averse). Ultimately, President Duterte’s theatrics remain a sideshow to the actual balance of power in the region. Unless the Philippines has any other form of leverage in the South China Sea dispute, I opine that it will make little progress in advancing its own claims in the Spratly Islands.
All in all, it is too early to draw judgments on President Duterte’s foreign policy agenda vis-à-vis the South China Sea. Nonetheless, the mixed signals issued by his administration only serves to provoke unease amongst Philippines’ allies and regional partners alike. International partners that are unsure of the Philippines’ commitment towards a joint safeguarding of regional interests in the South China Sea will likewise be hesitant to cooperate or render aid to the Philippines. To this end, President Duterte’s policy (intentional or otherwise) of strategic ambiguity, will only serve to hurt his nation’s bargaining position in the long run, by handing China the initiative in resolving the South China Sea dispute.
In the end, while I disagree with statements casting President Duterte’s actions as being wholly irrational, I nonetheless conclude that his statements thus far present a risky and unwarranted diplomatic gamble. In attempting to strengthen the Philippine’s international position through a false display of individual bravado, he actually exposes their inherent economic, political and military weaknesses. Until he attempts to rectify his nation’s economic (the Philippine’s GDP in 2015 was $292 billion compared to China’s GDP of $10.86 trillion) and military (almost all the ships of the Philippine navy are second-hand procurements, and barely match up against any of the other smaller claimants in the Spratlys, such as Brunei or Malaysia) imbalances vis-à-vis the other claimant states in the South China Sea (particularly China), the Philippines essentially remains a paper eagle.
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