I asked a colleague with years of experience dealing with and observing the Philippines about the new President and the maritime dispute with China.
He said that President Duterte revels in the unpredictable and is determined to try to root out crime and corruption in the country as he did so well in winning the slums of Davao 25 years ago against the communist insurgents – the NPA – by vicious vigilante squads. He is already bragging about how many drug dealers have been killed. He has also invited the NPA to hunt down drug dealers and criminals!
Duterte is now equally committed to cutting a deal with the NPA to end their insurgency – through some former NPA and sympathisers in his Cabinet and one of the exiled leaders who taught him at university. The insurgency has been fairly quiet for some years since the US bases (the NPA’s principal target) were closed. This will have serious implications for any moves to bring back significant US military presence in the Philippines. This in turn could pose a few issues for US/Philippines cooperation in the South China Sea.
Among Duterte’s Cabinet and close supporters are a few former Ministers who have good technocratic reputations – and who have been good friends of Australia in the past, and are well connected here.
From his early days, when push comes to shove (as it now has with the arbitration between China and the Philippines over the South China Sea) Duterte may well surprise all the pundits. He may try to cut a deal with China, using the arbitration judgement quietly as a bargaining chip for some bilateral agreement with China on the pretext of co-development of the eastern region of the dotted line. A commitment to not accepting the renewal of US bases would be a sweetener. I don’t think Duterte is likely to want to be a stooge of the US – in fact, to the contrary.
The Chinese community in the Philippines, both the long-established and the more recent arrivals, control much of the business sector. China has been able to take advantage of this in the past and could do so again in the future.
In the coming negotiations with China, it could be very significant that Duterte has appointed ex President, Fidel Ramos, to begin talks on the South China Sea which are in dispute with China.
There is plenty that China could offer in return such as infrastructure and no support for the NPA. Duterte has seen how the Chinese have played their Cambodian card. Of course that would then leave the Americans and us high and dry. And it would be the Vietnamese who would then remain the most vulnerable and isolated within ASEAN.
The outline by my colleague describes a very plausible path which President Duterte may adopt in future negotiations with the Chinese to settle their maritime border dispute.