Duterte’s Dilemma

    Richard Javad Heydarian

    Security, Asia

    President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte participates in the opening ceremony of the ASEAN Summit in Manila, Philippines November 13, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

    Duterte remains a popular leader. But he is not a king and he lacks the power to unilaterally decide the fate of the Philippines’ external relations, particularly vis-à-vis China and America.

    In recent months, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has seemingly abandoned strategic diversification in favor of “strategic leaning” towards China. To the Filipino leader, China is an indispensable geographical reality, which has to be accommodated with clear-eyed realism. He sees American primacy in Asia as a geopolitical anomaly, which will soon disappear from the regional landscape.

    Amid festering disagreements with traditional partners over human-rights issues, Duterte has also come to rely on China as his main strategic patron in the international system. In fact, Beijing has been among the most vociferous defenders of Dutetre’s war on drugs, which has allegedly led to widespread human-rights violations, in the United Nations. Above all, Duterte sees China as a partner for national development, hoping to secure large-scale investments to overhaul the Philippines’ decrepit public infrastructure.

    Thus, what began as a timely and sensible call for decreasing the Philippines’ century-old dependency on America has now morphed into flirtation with full strategic alignment with Beijing. Yet, upon closer look, what one discovers is nothing less than a high-stake contestation for the soul of Philippine foreign policy.

    In stark contrast to Duterte’s China-friendly rhetoric, the defense establishment has been perturbed by the Asian powerhouse’ creeping incursion into Philippine-claimed waters in the South China Sea. Moreover, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has gradually upgraded frayed defense relations with America, which has stepped up its efforts at curbing Chinese maritime revanchism.

    In the economic realm, traditional partners have been the the primacy source of investments, capital and technology. During Duterte’s first year in office, Japanese investments in the Philippines were twenty times larger than of China. American investors beat China by a factor of five.

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