MACK WILLIAMS. Duterte plays the China card

Oct 16, 2016


Not surprisingly, President Duterte is proving more than a handful for US policy makers on the eve of his major state visit to China. If he achieves many of the ambitious goals set for the visit , Duterte will be strengthened in his resolve to chart policies away from the traditional Philippines dependence on the US. How far China will be prepared to exploit Duterte’s position will be critical for US (and Australian) policy in the South China Sea. But so also it will be for the Philippines’ ASEAN partners as China’s considerable soft power potential in the region will be on display.

Duterte’s strategy to cut a deal with China which would allow the Philippines to have access for its fishermen and some share in the oil and gas in the contested area in return for the Philippines going quietly on the outcome of the recent international arbitration will be put to its first test. Sweeteners, in the form of soft Chinese loans for infrastructure and tourism projects, in the Philippines are also among other potential areas of cooperation. Given his rhetoric about weapons purchases from China ( and Russia) there may well be some further development on these issues too. All of which will only exacerbate US concerns about Duterte.

Despite its long involvement in the Philippines,  the US has all too often found it very difficult to manage the relationship. The very complex web of contacts between the two countries in itself sometimes complicates rather than facilitates the relationship. This is not helped by a long prevailing Washington  view that the Philippines is “the most pro-US country in the world” which consequently colours a lot of US (and Australian) thinking. Duterte’s swift and intemperate response to (otherwise justifiable ) US criticism of his violent anti-drug campaign were met by US attempts to point out just how dependent the Philippines still was on US support – especially in defence and aid matters. Predictably these attempts to influence Duterte have been counterproductive. In turn Duterte has decided to play his China card.

Early reports from Beijing have encouraged Duterte to explore ways that the two countries can enhance significantly their bilateral relationship through discussion and compromise. And with this achievable without any escalation of tension over the South China Sea issues. Likewise there has been a very positive reaction in the Philippines about this week’s visit to China – particularly from the business community who seem to have swamped Duterte with requests to join the Presidential party. Well over 200 from the major conglomerates and business associations have signed up including an impressive list of leading business interests with sizable investments in China – many with an ethnic Chinese connection.

It is likely that the outcome of this China visit will present further important challenges for US military planners and policy makers. With Duterte’s predecessor there had been plenty of signs that the Philippines would play a key role in the US attempts to mount a “coalition of the willing “ in the South China Sea because of its active role in taking China to international arbitration and its immediate proximity to the contested areas. China had already painted the Philippines as a “ US proxy” for the same reasons. No doubt US military planners had not ignored the attraction of the nearby former US bases in Subic and Clark. Coincidentally greater US military presence in the Philippines would help to fill a gap in US longer term “rebalancing” plans – again not lost on the Chinese.

There are some signs already that understandable US frustration with Duterte is occupying the minds of some in the Pentagon and the usual think tanks about how to circumvent any Duterte move away from being a compliant alliance partner. For the moment, saner thoughts in Washington would be well aware of the poor US track record in this area in the Philippines. The options which appear to having been given some airing are the promotion of “people power” or of dissension in the military to curb Duterte’s intentions.

As much as some might hope otherwise , the ingredients for people power are simply not there with :

  • Duterte’s continuing high poll ratings as witnessed by the most recent credible poll;
  • Duterte’s control of the parliament;
  • No powerful and politically savvy church leader like Cardinal Sin and
  • indeed no common church view on Duterte;
  • No years of Marcos nor the assassination of Ninoy Aquino;
  • the lack of a popular iconic alternative leader like Cory Aquino.

Above all Duterte is nothing if not street smart and will have his ear close to the ground. What is striking so far are the comments of leading Filipinos in public about Duterte. Few, if any, criticise him on policy grounds but on the processes he is employing and the colourful and worse language. Typical has been Joe Almonte ( eminence grise as head of the National Security Council under several Presidents) who has called on Duterte to use “colourless language” in pursuing his commendable goals. Any efforts to promote people power to change Duterte’s views would be a very long shot at this stage – and for some time to come.

On the promotion of dissension in the military, there have also been signs that this has been under some discussion in the halls in Washington. After his first visit to Washington, where he would have been under fire about Duterte’s pronouncements, the Philippines Defence Secretary tried valiantly to explain that the decision to halt joint exercises with the US had been a mistake caused by the lack of his correct briefing of his President ! Within days the Foreign Secretary set out a much more coherent policy line in support of his President. The Defence Secretary has since fallen in line.

Much has also been made of views that the Philippines military was “strongly anti-communist” with suggestions that this would make them uneasy. With the new policy directions, the military, small in size and limited in capability, have been professional in the tasks assigned to them – the communist and Muslim insurgencies. In the past the dissidence within the military has usually been in the middle officer ranks – “young Turks” – rather than at the top. Duterte has been quick to appreciate the need to maintain close links with the military, delivering most of his policy speeches to military audiences and quickly moving to improve their conditions of service . Former President Ramos actively encouraged Duterte to run and accepted appointment to be the point man in Duterte’s China policy. He has criticised Duterte recently but again more for style and priorities.

Promoting dissidence within the military would be an extremely risky venture for the US. Driving the Philippines out of the democratic world could have more serious strategic consequences. Again, the street smart Duterte has laid down a marker during his recent visit to Vietnam by claiming that he knew that the ‘CIA were out to get him’. The way things operate in the Philippines this will have been fed into the hyperactive gossip (chismis) mills in Manila in case anything untoward happens to Duterte in the future!

As a senior diplomat in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Mack Williams spent nine years working on Indochina issues in Saigon, Canberra, Phnom Penh and Washington. He was Australian Ambassador in the Philippines for five years.

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