Six months into his term, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has shaken up both the domestic and the regional political landscape. His scorched-earth campaign against illegal drugs, which has dominated international headlines, has come under scrutiny from human rights groups, mainstream media, and the Philippines’ closest allies like the United States.
Outgoing U.S. president Barack Obama has openly disagreed with Duterte’s “shock and awe” approach to the drug war, firmly urging his Philippine counterpart to deal with the menace of drugs in “the right way.” Most recently, the White House has called upon the Duterte administration to uphold “the rule of law and a commitment to upholding basic, universal human rights,” reiterating that a violent crackdown is “not going to solve the problem.”
The United Nations, the European Parliament, and other Western allies such as Australia have raised similar concerns. In response, the tough-talking Filipino leader has fired back, accusing them of unduly interfering in domestic affairs and preventing him from fulfilling his main campaign promise, the suppression of the drug problem within the first six months of his term. Among traditional partners, there is a palpable concern that the Philippines’ status as a bastion of liberal democracy in Asia is now under threat.
The emerging shift of Philippine foreign policy in recent months has also flustered both allies and rivals. Under Duterte’s watch, the Southeast Asian country has experienced its most radical foreign policy recalibration in recent memory. On multiple occasions, Duterte has threatened to end the Philippines’ century-old alliance with the United States in favor of ideological realignment and economic partnership with China.
To the consternation of Washington and other like-minded powers such as Tokyo, Duterte has essentially opted for a bilateral, rather than multilateral, approach in dealing with the South China Sea disputes. And in recent weeks, Manila has warned that U.S. access to Philippine bases and existing joint military exercises are up for review. The surprising election of Donald Trump, however, has raised hopes of a less fraught relationship between Washington and Manila in the near future.
Foreign Policy Reset
Duterte’s foreign policy recalibration is based both on legitimate strategic concerns as well as often amateurish tactical maneuvers. His tirades against Washington, including expletives directed at top U.S. figures, clearly reflect Duterte’s sensitivity to criticism. This sensitivity is most noticeable when his human rights record and approach to law and order issues are attacked. This is a clear indication of the “personalization” of Philippine foreign policy, a common phenomenon in countries ruled by populist strongmen. Duterte often uses terms like “I” and “myself” (rather than “my country” or “we”) when he talks about the Philippines’ relations with other countries, indicating how he allows his personal emotions and idiosyncrasies to affect Manila’s diplomacy.
The Filipino leader’s audacious readiness to openly threaten the foundations of the Philippines’ oldest alliance, meanwhile, is a reflection of his considerable political capital and tightening grip over state institutions. He has managed to concentrate power in the executive branch more rapidly and successfully than any of his predecessors since the end of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986.
Yet Duterte has also raised legitimate arguments over the risks and opportunities in continuing the confrontational strategy toward China advanced under the administration of his predecessor, Benigno Aquino. The Obama administration has failed to clarify the extent of its security commitment to the Philippines in the South China Sea, while the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has not even mentioned Manila’s landmark arbitration case against China in its official communiqués.
In contrast, China has always been clear about its carrots and sticks. If the Philippines were to continue its confrontational strategy and press its arbitration case in international forums, China would ensure that it faced stark consequences, particularly in the South China Sea. Beijing has the capability to, among other things, impose an exclusion zone within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and/or build military facilities on the Scarborough Shoal.
As for carrots, China has offered joint development, expanded trade linkages, and massive infrastructure investment in exchange for a “pragmatic” recalibration on Manila’s part. In Duterte’s estimation, the Philippines could not fully count on the support of its allies and neighbors in the event of conflict with China, and the possibility of reviving diplomatic and investment relations with Beijing made the decision a clear one.
An Unlikely “Bromance”
The election of Donald Trump, however, presents a potential turnabout in bilateral relations between the United States and the Philippines. Duterte himself, upon Trump’s election victory, hinted at a recalibration in his policy toward the United States. Offering warm congratulations and best wishes (“Mabuhay Ka”) to the newly-elected Trump, an unusually amiable Duterte reassuringly said that he would not “want to fight [with America] because Trump is there.”
Long-described as a “Trump of the East,” Duterte hasn’t wasted time in emphasizing their similarities, especially in terms of temperament and a proclivity toward a populist brand of politics. The foul-mouthed Filipino leader was especially ecstatic and polite during his phone conversation with Trump, which reportedly was warm and mutually amicable.
The Duterte administration is optimistic about Trump for three main reasons. First is the expectation that Obama’s successor will be less tough on Manila vis-à-vis human rights and democracy issues. In fact, Trump’s Asia advisers have gone as far as calling for a “pragmatic” engagement and broader cooperation with the military junta in Thailand, the other U.S. treaty ally in the region that has recently faced criticism from Washington.
The second reason for optimism from Duterte’s team is Trump’s increasingly tough and unilateralist approach to China and embrace of a Reagan-esque “peace through strength” approach to the South China Sea disputes. For Duterte, this means the Philippines could step back and let the two superpowers slug it out in the high seas, while Manila tries to reap the benefits of friendly ties with both Beijing and Washington. For the Filipino leader, it is best to keep out of the clash of the titans.
Third, Duterte is hoping to leverage deep business relations between his envoy to Washington (Jose Antonio, who built the Trump Tower in Manila) and the Trump family to facilitate the bilateral relationship. Other nations, such as Turkey, India, and Argentina, are reportedly hoping to employ a similar strategy.
Of course, given the temperamental unpredictability of both Duterte and Trump, many of these assumptions will be put to test. Additionally, Duterte will likely face growing tensions with the U.S. Senate over human rights issues, as well as with the Department of Defense over access to Philippine bases, a mechanism crucial to America’s projection of military power in the Western Pacific. But what is clear is that there is palpable optimism in Manila that Obama’s successor will be a better match for Duterte. For now, that has calmed some nerves in Manila.