The Philippines’ newly minted president couldn’t have asked for a more high-profile diplomatic debut when he attended this week’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, which saw the participation of the leaders from across the Asia Pacific, including the United States, Japan, China, Russia, and India, along with the secretary-general of the United Nations.
It was a unique opportunity for Rodrigo Duterte, the firebrand Filipino leader, to showcase a more statesmanlike demeanor, build his international profile, and seek support for the Philippines amid intensified disputes in the South China Sea. Duterte was also expected to officially accept the Philippines’ chairmanship of ASEAN for 2017—the grouping’s 50th anniversary—which carries significant symbolic value.
A scheduled meeting with President Barack Obama, who was on his final trip to Asia as president of the United States, was the most anticipated of Duterte’s nine planned bilateral meetings during the summit. Yet, to the astonishment of even Duterte’s most avid followers, the Philippine leader couldn’t keep himself from uttering expletives against his U.S. counterpart, provoking uproar in Washington and across the global media landscape.
In response, Obama decided to cancel the bilateral meeting, raising concerns about a potential diplomatic crisis between Washington and Manila. The Duterte administration subsequently released a statement of “regret” and the White House said that U.S.-Philippine relations remain ”rock solid,” leading more sanguine observers to hope that the two allies had quickly settled the matter.
But such optimism is premature, as the dust-up could signal the start of a painful reconfiguration in Philippine-U.S. relations under Duterte. Bilateral relations are too institutionalized to be disrupted by a short-term diplomatic hiccup, but they no longer look as special and sacrosanct as before.
More than Meets the Eye
Duterte represents many firsts for the Philippines. He is the first president from conflict-ridden Mindanao, which is racked by insurgences, constantly plays host to American-assisted counter-terror operations, and suffers from a massive development deficit. He is the first Filipino leader who is a self-described “socialist,” with deep ties to leftist progressive groups which have gained unprecedented access to the upper echelons of power within the Duterte administration. And he is the first Philippine president with a policy agenda focused almost exclusively on law and order, particularly the fight against illegal drugs. Added to these firsts is his penchant for off-the-cuff statements, spontaneous rants, and long-winded tirades, which have embarrassed polite society but deeply endeared him to the disillusioned lower-classes.
Crucially for the United States, Duterte is also the first Philippine president to have so explicitly called for a more independent foreign policy. Upon his election, Duterte declared, “I will be charting a [new] course [for the Philippines] on its own and will not be dependent on the United States.” It was a brazen and audacious policy pronouncement in a profoundly pro-American society, where much of the intelligentsia and security forces feel deep affinity with the United States.
A reliable iconoclast, Duterte has consistently encouraged diplomatic outreach to China, which is deeply unpopular in the Philippines, specifically in light of the South China Sea disputes. For Duterte, confrontation with China is not only futile but foolish. He is interested in reviving heavily-strained bilateral ties, with a focus on inviting back large-scale Chinese infrastructure investment.
It is highly likely that Duterte will choose Beijing for his first official state visit, a remarkable departure from his predecessors, who usually chose Washington as their first diplomatic destination. Meanwhile, Duterte has adopted a hardline position against any criticism of his “shock and awe” anti-crime campaign, which has drawn negative reaction from the United Nations, the United States, and international media. No wonder, then, that Duterte felt provoked when President Obama made it clear that he would raise human rights concerns in their planned bilateral meeting.
Earlier Duterte had threatened, in dark humor, to pull his country out of the United Nations if the latter pushed ahead with human rights-related investigations in the Philippines. He also shunned any formal meeting with UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit.
A Fluid Landscape
Aside from the high-profile diplomatic misstep with Washington, Duterte’s bilateral meetings with Asian leaders, especially with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, went smoothly and were highly cordial. His decision to effectively de-multilateralize the South China Sea disputes, calling for peaceful dialogue and downplaying the Philippines’ arbitration case against China, has struck a chord with many ASEAN leaders, who are eager to avoid any diplomatic collision with China.
In fact, many ASEAN leaders quietly relish the fact that the new Philippine leader is adopting a more pragmatic and conciliatory approach toward China, as opposed to the previous Benigno Aquino administration which constantly pressured its regional peers to rally against Beijing. In this sense, Duterte is seen as a diplomatic dove.
Hardly any Asian leader has expressed concern with human rights conditions in the Philippines. Some may enjoy, or even admire, Duterte’s spirited criticism of the United States’ human rights record and his strongman aura. Nevertheless, the Duterte administration, which is simultaneously grappling with terrorism and maritime threats from China, can’t fully alienate the United States.
Duterte has made it clear that he will not scuttle existing security agreements with Washington, which are crucial to the Philippines’ minimum defense requirements. Burgeoning negotiations with Beijing could go awry, especially amid fears that China may soon move ahead with building facilities on the bitterly-contested Scarborough Shoal. If China refuses to make any tangible concessions on the South China Sea, particularly over fisheries resources at Scarborough, the Duterte administration will have no choice but to revert to a more confrontational approach lest it provoke domestic political backlash.
This is precisely why security relations with the United States will remain indispensable for the Philippines. Nonetheless, it is clear that under the Duterte presidency, the United States can no longer expect the same level of strategic deference and diplomatic support. This is the new normal in Philippine-U.S. relations.