The Overreach of the China Hawks
Aggression Is the Wrong Response to Beijing
Three months into office, Rodrigo Duterte, the newly minted president of the Philippines, enjoys unparalleled political influence. By some indicators, he is the most powerful Filipino leader since the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship ended three decades ago. Duterte, moreover, is in a unique position to overhaul the country’s domestic political landscape, as well as its foreign policy.
Duterte was elected in May as a tough-talking outsider who astutely tapped into the anti-establishment sentiment of the Philippine electorate. Since then, he has rapidly consolidated power. Although he hails from a relatively minor political party (PDP-Laban), Duterte now enjoys supermajority support in the Philippine Congress, where his allies have seamlessly marginalized any voice of opposition. Over the next few years, he is set to appoint 11 of 15 justices at the Philippine Supreme Court, and his so-called shock and awe campaign against illegal drugs has raised his standing with the Philippines’ law enforcement agencies. Even the armed forces are warming to their new leader—Duterte has visited 14 military camps within less than a month, and promised to double military members’ salaries, expand their benefits, guarantee support for their families, and enhance their health facilities and emergency medical care.
The Filipino public has also rallied behind Duterte to an astonishing degree. Duterte only received a plurality of votes during the presidential elections, with one of the lowest pre-election trust ratings. But the most recent survey suggests he now enjoys a whopping 91 percent approval rating—the highest on record. Neither growing global concern over Duterte’s war on drugs nor his spate of undiplomatic behavior is likely to dent his domestic popularity or influence, at least for now.
That popular support has given him the space to recast the Philippines’ foreign policy. Over the past few months, he has broken one diplomatic taboo after another, ranging from diplomatic flirtation with China to vulgar, unorthodox tirades against the European Union and the United States. The results are at best ambiguous, but taken together they signal a potential shift away from the Philippines’ close historical alliance with the United States. For instance, Duterte’s paradoxically dovish position on the South China Sea dispute—he has decided not to press his country’s territorial claims against China, even though an international arbitration court recently sided with the Philippines—could contribute to the peaceful resolution of the crisis; at the same time, it is undermining Washington’s efforts to mobilize regional pressure against Beijing’s growing maritime assertiveness. Almost single-handedly, the Filipino strongman is reshaping the regional order.
Almost single-handedly, the Filipino strongman is reshaping the regional order.
In liberal democracies, even the most colorful candidates are expected to moderate their behavior once in actual positions of power. The rituals of office and the thick web of existing bureaucratic regulations are designed to mold politicians to the demands of their institutional roles. Duterte, who describes himself as “rude,” seemed to acknowledge this imperative when he promised, ahead of his inauguration, “When I become president, when I take my oath of office... There will be a metamorphosis.”
There has been no such transformation. In fact, Duterte often behaves as if he were still in an election campaign. As I argued earlier in Foreign Affairs, Duterte’s remarkable (and unexpected) electoral success was largely a product of growing belief among Filipino voters that only a tough, single-minded leader could resolve the country’s fundamental challenges. Duterte works hard to maintain this image. Among his millions of staunch supporters, the president’s macho personality, constant disregard for rituals of power, and open expression of hostility toward the mainstream elite as well as foreign leaders have solidified his image as the “great leader” who can bring about radical change.
For instance, in his well-publicized campaign against drugs, Duterte has circumvented the country’s judicial and bureaucratic regulations, deploying the national police as well as the military to brutally crack down on the sale and use of illegal drugs, which he considers a threat to national security. In his view, these extraordinary measures are necessary to prevent the country from becoming a narcostate. But the liberal Filipino intelligentsia, human rights groups, and much of the media—as well as Western powers and international organizations—consider these measures to be a dangerous violation of human rights. Markets, too, are beginning to speak out: credit rating agencies and major business groups have begun warning about potential economic fallout from Duterte’s violent crackdown, and just this week the Philippine peso hit a seven-year low.
Yet instead of giving in, Duterte is doubling down on his main campaign promise, which was to eliminate the country’s “drug menace” within three to six months in office. Acknowledging that it was impossible to make good on this promise, in mid-September he asked for an additional six months. That suggests that he won’t relent—no matter what the West thinks—as long as his controversial campaign continues to enjoy significant public support. His government, for its part, still claims the policy as a success, boasting that as many as 600,000 alleged drug dealers and users have surrendered to the government, and that crime rates have dropped by almost half. Some have even raised the possibility that Duterte will soon shift the focus of the drug war from criminal punishment to public health, as the government has begun to augment rehabilitation centers.
Duterte, to be fair, is not a single-issue president. He has adopted a proactive approach on a number of issues besides drugs. The Philippines suffers from some of the world’s worst traffic congestion, and the Duterte administration is set to accelerate infrastructure spending. Major investors such as China, Japan, and South Korea are now expressing interest in overhauling the country’s decrepit transportation network. Duterte has also, to the pleasant surprise of many, appointed a seasoned environmentalist to head the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which has begun to rapidly revoke the licenses of mining companies accused of violating environmental and sustainable development regulations. Progressive activists have been chosen to lead departments in charge of agrarian reform, labor and employment, and social welfare.
Even economic reform may be on the agenda. In the Philippines’ highly oligopolistic economy, Duterte’s open confrontation with some oligarchs and establishment of a specialized competition commission, led by a leading economist, have raised hopes of more competitive and growth-oriented policy changes. Although they generally oppose his methods and hesitate to praise him publicly, some economists and investors privately admit that Duterte, who enjoys massive support in a de facto rubber-stamp Congress, is precisely the sort of leader to break up vested interests, make necessary constitutional amendments, and take the Philippines through difficult but necessary structural reforms.
For outsiders, Duterte’s most interesting moves may be in his steady reconfiguration of the Philippines’ foreign policy. In a society where the United States enjoys the world’s highest approval rating, Duterte has constantly emphasized his preference for more independence. Soon after securing election victory, Duterte declared, “I will be chartering [sic] a [new] course [for the Philippines] on its own and will not be dependent on the United States.” Although he has promised to preserve existing bilateral security agreements, Duterte has hinted at greater restrictions on U.S. military access to Philippine bases, and has even suggested the expulsion of U.S. Special Forces, who have been advising their Filipino counterparts on counterterror operations.
For Duterte, a self-described socialist with often anti-imperialist rhetoric, the United States isn’t necessarily the most reliable ally, particularly in the South China Sea. After all, U.S. military assistance to the Philippines pales in comparison to that offered to U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East, and the Obama administration has equivocated on whether the U.S.-Philippine mutual defense treaty covers the South China Sea dispute. Unlike any of his predecessors, Duterte has also openly questioned the United States’ commitment to his country. In Duterte’s words: “l would only ask the U.S. ambassador, ‘Are you with us [in the South China Sea]?’ ”
Of course, Duterte acknowledges that bilateral military relations with the United States are deep and institutionalized. The Philippine military and security establishment is largely oriented toward Washington and relies on U.S. financial, intelligence, and logistical assistance. And it’s unlikely that Duterte would risk massive political backlash by fully abrogating existing security agreements.
Still, differences over human rights issues are beginning to gnaw at U.S.-Philippine diplomatic ties. U.S. ambassador Philip Goldberg and U.S. President Barack Obama have both raised concerns over the Philippines’ war on drugs, and particularly the increase in extrajudicial killings. In response, Duterte, who perceives their criticism as foreign interference, made shocking remarks about both in his recent tirades. The two countries are also diverging on the South China Sea, and how to approach Chinese maritime assertiveness.
Unlike Washington, Manila isn’t interested in using the recent verdict of the arbitral tribunal at The Hague, formed under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to build international pressure on Beijing—this despite the fact that the verdict favored the Philippines’ maritime claims against those of China. Instead, Duterte has set aside the landmark case in international meetings, such as the recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, in favor of bilateral engagement with China. In fact, Duterte has even called for suspension of joint patrols with the United States and other allies in the South China Sea. Unsurprisingly, the Philippine president has been courting improved ties with and investments from China, where he will likely make his first state visit.
It is doubtful that Duterte is moving to genuinely embrace China, which would surely provoke domestic political backlash. Rather, he is most likely using China as a threat to extract more concessions from United States on aid and defense, adopting the classic strategy of small powers by playing the great powers against one another. Nonetheless, Duterte’s friendliness with Beijing has made it more difficult for Washington to build pressure on China to abide by the South China Sea ruling, which originally seemed to be a serious blow to Chinese expansionism in the region. But if anything, Obama himself looked isolated on the issue during his most recent trip to Asia.
Of course, it is still too early to assess the trajectory of Philippine foreign policy under Duterte, who is at any rate a mercurial and unpredictable leader. He could very well shift his policy back toward alignment with Washington if negotiations in the South China Sea fail to yield any meaningful benefits for his country. So far, however, Duterte seems determined to establish a new normal for U.S.-Philippine relations, in which ties are expected to remain robust but are no longer as special and sacrosanct as before.