Going Global: The Philippines
Columns / November 2, 2016
President Duterte pivots towards China
Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte made a name for himself when he called U.S. President Barack Obama a “son of a bitch,” and said that he didn’t like Americans. It was little surprise that Obama cancelled their meeting the day of his comments.
Duarte might appear controversial from the outside, given his references to Hitler and calls for the execution of drug addicts, but he’s in fact extremely popular in his home country. Though polling in the Philippines is dubious due to limitations in the country and the inconsistency between Social Weather Survey and Pulse Asia, data would suggest that Duterte has a 76 per cent approval rating. Higher than the peak ratings of Aquino (71) and Estrada (69). He currently also has a low disapproval rating at 11 per cent.
Duterte has been especially controversial for a democratically elected leader, one that some might describe as Trump-like, given his overly casual tone when he speaks and tendency to insult people.
Unlike Trump, Duterte has been in politics for a long time, though like Trump, much of his experience can be characterized by ugly behavior. Duterte has been known for taking the classic “tough on crime” talking point to another level when, during his time as mayor of Davao city, he supported the actions of violent vigilante groups. In July 2005, he said that “summary execution of criminals remains the most effective way to crush kidnapping and illegal drugs.”
It seems that Duterte is sending the Philippines towards a China pivot. The president is calling for the U.S. to remove troops from their island, and Duterte is saying more and more nice things about China and Russia. Some might argue that with Duterte’s authoritarian leadership style, it would make sense for him to seek closer ties with other authoritarian governments.
Russia and China would both benefit from a new ally in the South China Sea. Russia is always happy to shift the balance of power towards them and away from the U.S., especially in a region where they have almost no representation. China would be happy if this meant being one step closer to becoming the local hegemon.
Historically speaking though, this is a strange move on Duterte’s part, given the fact that the Chinese military has been a problem for the Philippines by raising several man made military islands close to their islands. Given that China considers much of the South China Sea to be their territory, despite an international court ruling saying that the “nine dash line” has no legal basis.
The Philippines has also been a long-time strategic ally of the U.S., receiving plenty of support over the years in the form of training, intelligence trading, and billions of dollars in excess hardware. This is why it’s so perplexing for Duterte to suggest that the bilateral relationship with the United States is no longer benefiting them.
Either way, the Chinese are quite sunny about Duterte’s friendliness towards China. “The clouds are fading away. The sun is rising over the horizon, and will shine beautifully on the new chapter of bilateral relations,” Zhao Jianhua, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines, told a reception in Manila.
It should go without saying that the U.S. will be frustrated. They have maintained strong relationships with South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and several other countries in the region for the purposes of keeping China in check, as well as protecting their vital trade routes. Though the relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines hasn’t soured completely, it will be a challenge for the next U.S. President.