The New Cold War
America, China, and the Echoes of History
On May 9, the Philippines elected Rodrigo Duterte, the controversial and tough-talking mayor of Davao City, to be its next president. Thanks to rhetoric that resembled that of a U.S. presidential candidate, the Filipino elite and international media took to calling Duterte the “Donald Trump of the East.” Duterte was a political outsider only a few months ago and had a slim chance of even remaining in the tight presidential race. But economic dissatisfaction, rising crime rates, and popular frustration catapulted his fringe candidacy to victory.
Duterte comes from the margins of the Philippines’ ruling establishment. To win the election, he had to confront a formidable set of rivals with superior political machinery, resources, and family ties. But in the end, Filipinos gravitated toward Duterte’s strongman aura and uncompromising rhetoric against crime, drugs, and corruption. Duterte’s bluster may have helped him get elected, but now he must deal with the challenge of meeting his voters’ expectations.
The last six years of President Benigno Aquino III’s term saw the Philippines go from being the “sick man of Asia” to “Asia’s rising tiger.” His prudent fiscal policies and good governance initiatives gave the country one of the world’s fastest growth rates. At the same time, Manila cracked down on corruption by arresting several senators, the country’s former national police chief, and even Aquino's predecessor, former Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, as well as some of her key government allies. International investors and the global media hailed Aquino’s efforts, the results of which seemed to represent a turning point in Filipino political culture by placing the issue of bureaucratic corruption at the center of the nation’s discourse like never before.
But tens of millions of ordinary Filipinos benefited little from their country’s economic success. Aquino’s anticorruption efforts targeted his political rivals and were largely ineffective. Not a single high-profile figure accused of corruption has been put in jail. One of them, Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, posted bail and is now back in the Senate as a key opposition member. The judicial system has been too slow, and Aquino has been accused of shielding his own friends and inner-circle members from corruption allegations. Financial growth helped only the country’s elite, and the national crime rate soared. Aquino stumbled when it came to upgrading the country's infrastructure as well. He delayed major projects, such as an extension to Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport, and made Manila the most congested city in the world.
Now, 30 years removed from the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, Filipinos find themselves disillusioned with their country’s democratic system. Aquino provided economic opportunities and growth to the country’s elite but left average Filipinos out in the cold. This frustration has given way to grievance politics and a desire to change the status quo. For many voters, Duterte’s platform offered just such a departure. His decisive and swift solutions differed from the conventional, establishment-minded policies of his rivals.
Much like Trump, Duterte has made the most of his outsider status. He dismissed his opponents as incompetent and corrupt puppets of the oligarchy. His supporters waged a social media offensive, and Duterte’s bawdy jokes made him appear to be a man who is simple, effective, and unfazed by the political establishment. As mayor of Davao City, Duterte took a tough stance on crime and turned the wayward municipality into one of the nation’s safest cities. He has promised to do the same thing throughout the rest of the country as well. Additionally, Duterte has promised to deliver infrastructural improvements and greater autonomy for the impoverished central and southern islands of Visayas and Mindanao, which have felt neglected by “Imperial Manila” and left behind by the industrialized northern island of Luzon.
But to be certain, Duterte is no Trump. He is more akin to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or the caudillos (loosely translated into English as “leaders” or “chiefs”) of Latin American politics. Duterte's leadership style does have some autocratic and authoritative tendencies, such as making threats against critics, micromanaging everyday governance in Davao, speaking his mind with minimal regard for established rules and customs, and demonstrating supreme confidence in himself and his leadership style. But he also has more than two decades of political experience, as well as a plan to make his campaign promises a reality. For example, when the Filipino stock market recoiled at the prospect of his presidency, Duterte was able to soothe market jitters by promising to hire a competent, technocratic cabinet comprising seasoned officials from previous administrations.
And despite his bluster and braggadocio, Duterte is a realist in the realm of foreign policy. He is eager to avoid conflict with China and wants to bring Beijing’s investment dollars back to the Philippines. In fact, Duterte has consistently expressed his willingness to engage in direct dialogue with Beijing over controversial issues, such as its aggressive expansion in the South China Sea. It is also unlikely that Duterte would sever relations with the United States. As the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) becomes a bigger threat in Mindanao, Duterte will need Washington more than ever. But despite these threats, the U.S.-Philippine relationship is also likely to change during his tenure. He has expressed doubts about Washington’s commitment to the Philippines and would likely adopt a more balanced strategy toward Beijing and Washington. In other words, Manila would cooperate with both China and the United States when their interests align but would refrain from taking sides during a conflict. And although Duterte is expected to honor the country’s newly approved Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which permits the United States to build and operate military facilities in the Philippines, he is likely to drive a hard bargain before giving U.S. troops full access to the country’s bases.
Duterte’s biggest challenges, however, are domestic. Namely, he will have to address crime and corruption issues during his first year in office. Otherwise, he risks alienating his overzealous supporters, who expect swift and comprehensive solutions. He will have to empower law enforcement agencies by promising salary hikes, better equipment and training, and promotions and by stamping out bureaucratic corruption. With sustained political leadership, Duterte can boost police morale, which will help him launch a comprehensive campaign against organized crime. However, he must also assure his legions of critics that he will not tinker with the country’s democratic institutions and that he will respect the rule of law in fighting against crime and corruption.
For now, many Filipinos are giving him the benefit of the doubt. It is crucial for the Duterte administration to manage expectations by calling for more patience, understanding, and cooperation from the public. Duterte might as well use his first state of the nation address to do so. But he will also have to maintain their trust and confidence by actually delivering on key campaign promises, albeit within a more realistic time frame. In other words, the real challenges for Duterte have only just begun.