How Philippine President Duterte has transformed the Asian geopolitical landscape
The true revolution in Manila’s foreign policy is the almost overnight transformation of a US ally into a leading sceptic of American leadership
“[O]n extremely rare occasions, a single individual’s decisions can radically transform an entire country’s political and socioeconomic structures, with global repercussions,” wrote Stephen Kotkin in his definitive biography of Joseph Stalin.
In many ways, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has exercised, albeit on a humbler scale, a similar role in his country and the broader region.
In the distant future, Duterte is likely to be remembered as the harbinger of a post-American order in Asia. And without a question, so far, China has been the greatest beneficiary of his strategic recalibration.
The true revolution in Duterte’s foreign policy is the almost overnight transformation of a United States ally into a leading sceptic of American leadership in Asia. Under Duterte, relations with the US are no longer as special and sacred as before, but instead largely transactional.
To appreciate Duterte’s singular and earth-shattering impact, one must put his foreign policy into proper historical context. For decades, the Philippine-US alliance served the linchpin of an emerging anti-China bloc in the Asia-Pacific region, with Japan, Australia, Vietnam and, increasingly, even India playing vital supporting roles.
Over the years, the Philippines featured among the most staunchly pro-American (and anti-China) nations on Earth. At one point, Filipinos had a higher approval rating of the US than Americans themselves, while adopting a largely negative view of China.
In the 2013 Global Attitudes survey, conducted by the Pew Research Centre, up to 85 per cent of Filipinos viewed the US in a favourable light as opposed to 81 per cent of Americans. Over the next two years, an even larger number of Filipinos (92 per cent) gravitated towards the global superpower.
Since his ascent to power, the tough-talking leader, however, has upended the regional geopolitical order by ending the Philippines’ century-old strategic subservience to the United States, a former colonial master.
“The future of the Philippines is in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and in Asia,” Duterte said during his keynote speech at the World Economic Forum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, earlier this year. For him, Asians alone should decide the future of Asia with minimum interference from Western powers.
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This bold pronouncement went hand in hand with back-to-back visits to Beijing, a brazen snub of US President Donald Trump’s invitation to the White House, and a cessation of all joint war games and military exercises with the US in the South China Sea.
Duterte said that the era of American supremacy was essentially over and that the future of his country lay in deeper relations with Asian powers, particularly China. Instead of confrontation with the rising superpower, he advocated dialogue and cooperation.
His foreign policy pragmatism, combined with collapsing confidence in the US leadership under Trump, seems to have struck a chord at home. A recent Pew Survey suggests a rapidly closing gap between the US and China in the hearts and minds of the Filipino people.
Over the past two years, the number of Filipinos who favour closer trade relations with China has increased to 67 per cent from 43 per cent. In contrast, the number who favour confrontation with China has fallen to 28 per cent from 41 per cent.
While Duterte fell short of actually severing his country’s alliance with the US – as he threatened to do on several occasions – bilateral relations are unlikely ever to return to their heyday.
Today, Philippine-US military cooperation is largely confined to counterterrorism, and humanitarian aid and disaster-relief operations. Maritime security cooperation (against China) has been significantly curtailed.
Despite the highly cordial summit with Trump in November, the Filipino president made it crystal clear that his rapprochement with China will continue unabated.
The two neighbours are currently discussing billions of dollars in big-ticket Chinese investments, which could overhaul the Philippines’ decrepit public infrastructure. By and large, China stands at the core of Duterte’s national development agenda, dubbed as “Dutertenomics”.
In a remarkably consistent fashion, the mercurial Filipino leader also expressly opposed interference by external powers, namely the US, in the South China Sea disputes.
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As chairman of Asean this year, Duterte promoted bilateral diplomacy with China, advocating an Asean-China Code of Conduct to manage age-old maritime spats.
Thanks to the Filipino leader, China was able to leverage its deep relations with the Asean as a shield against US involvement in the South China Sea.
In a twist of events, the Philippines has now emerged as one of the closest strategic partners of China in the region, reinforcing expectations of an increasingly Beijing-led regional order.
Nevertheless, nothing is set in stone. Duterte’s outreach to China still faces significant opposition at home, especially among the (US-leaning) security establishment and the liberal media intelligentsia complex. This is why it’s essential for the two neighbours to not fall into strategic complacency.
In the coming year, the two sides should translate their blossoming partnership into tangible and fruitful cooperation on the ground, whether in the realm of infrastructure development or mutually acceptable resource sharing agreements in the South China Sea.
Otherwise, we may see another plot twist in the tempestuous Philippine-US-China triangle. Yet, for now, few can deny how Duterte has turned his country into Asia’s pivot state, much to the benefit of Beijing.
Richard Javad Heydarian is an Asia-based scholar and the author of several books, including Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific and The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy.