What Philippines' president Duterte is telling us about China



Reckless machoism is the trademark of President Rodrigo Duterte. He has vowed to stop at nothing in his bloody war against drugs and dissidents, and is unapologetic about increasing casualities incurred. Meanwhile, he demonstrates a terrifying disregard for anyone who opposes his agenda, and he delights in doing so.

xxxxxHe dismissed then-President Barak Obama as a 'son of a whore', said he does not 'give a shit about the stupid UN' and told the EU, in no uncertain terms, to 'fuck off'. This foul-mouthed gun-slinger has, however, shown a softer side in his relations with China. What, then, is so special about China, and should people be suspicious?

Prior to his election, Duterte said that he would 'ride a jetski to a disputed South China Sea island and plant a Philippine flag on it'. He subsequently wrote this off as a joke, and ridiculed those who had believed it. But they could be forgiven for taking him seriously.

Certainly, anyone who might have thought the talk of killing criminals was simply rhetoric, has since been proven wrong. He means what he says, and says what he thinks, at least in this regard. Perhaps, then, he has just changed his mind about China? Perhaps he’s playing strategic macro-politics? Or, perhaps he acts impulsively, without a plan.

If it is only a matter of changing his mind, he has done so more than once. When he described his plan to fly the flag in the disputed region as a joke, he suggested it was pointless to challenge China. A month later he advised that he had ordered his armed forces to occupy the region.

Asked about this in an interview, he said they were about to go there when China asked him, 'Can we please avoid it at this time?'. In response, as he explained it, 'Out of respect for my friendship with China, I said OK'.

This, from the man who has recently threatened to kill his long-time friend and mentor, Jose Maria Sison, after a breakdown in negotiations with the latter’s Communist Party.

Duterte’s restraint in this regard is all the more surprising, and significant, given that he has in his possession an authoritative decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, recognising the Philippines’ exclsuive right to the disputed region.


"As Duterte’s policies put him in a more and more precarious position, perhaps he thinks he needs the kind of unconditional aid and investment that China can offer."


Also in his favour is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and his strong collective bargaining position as Chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations. Yet Duterte has expressed a willingness to forfeit all of this, for the sake of friendship.

Of course, this uncharacteristic diplomacy has earned the Philippines no less than US$15 billion in Chinese investment pledges. And such investment may be critical when the Philippines stands to lose US$7 billion of direct investment per annum from the EU, as well as free trade agreements worth US$13.7 billion in annual trade turnover, in objection to Duterte’s disregard for human rights.

China does not, nor is it in a position to, scrutinise the human rights practices of its allies. And as Duterte’s policies put him in a more and more precarious position, perhaps he thinks he needs the kind of unconditional aid and investment that China can offer.

The Chinese alliance also represents a rejection of Western politics. The Philippines and the US have a long history and, historically, a strong relationship. This became strained between Duterte and Obama, but under President Donald Trump the US has assumed a more tolerant approach to the Philippines’ human rights abuses, and has insisted that alliances with China and itself are not mutually exclusive.

Duterte has spoken favourably of Trump, and has even engaged US military services on Philippine soil, albeit reluctantly so. However, despite an invitation to the White House, Duterte has asserted he will never visit 'lousy America', citing not his counterpart, but US Congress and Western politics at large, by which he says 'Trump is paralysed'.

Duterte can accurately be described as temperamental and, at times, even unpredictable. That is not to say, however, that he does not know what he is doing. Clearly, he wants to remove himself from what he perceives as paralysing Western politics.

He is doing this both strategically and successfully, as he alligns himself with China and, to a lesser extent, Russia. But, characteristically, he is pursuing this objective at any cost. It is easy to see that such an approach is foolhardy in the context of the war on drugs, as the number of drug-related fatalities approaches 10,000. This is less obvious, but equally the case, in the context of international relations.

Financially, the disputed South China Sea represents $5 trillion in annual trade. More importantly, however, this region is the seat of super global political power.

As the Philippines cedes its sovereignty to China, it subjects itself and its fellow South East Asian Nations, unprotected, to an unfettered and likely arbitrary Chinese authority. Perhaps when the honeymoon is over he will snap out of it. Hopefully then it will not be too late. 



Frank BrennanDaniel Kleinsman is a lawyer and activist currently based in Wellington, New Zealand. He is a dual citizen of New Zealand and the Netherlands. After graduating in law at Victoria University of Wellington in 2014, he spent two years in the Marist seminary, which included one year in Davao, the Philippines. He is now undertaking postgraduate research on the treatment of prisoners in the Philippines. 

Topic tags: Daniel Kleinsman, Rodrigo Duterte



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Existing comments

I believed DU30 is out sensible mind to lead 100k+ pinoys at times of our need for a national pride. He exchanged Filipino pride and souverienty for temporary relief...what a shame he's doing to our mother country...i regret voting him!!!!

Josef Pomaco | 16 August 2017  

Thanks for this interesting and informative article, Daniel. Interesting to get another perspective on Duterte's thinking, which puzzles me, too. Is it possible that he may worry that the US cavalry will not come riding to the rescue if the chips are down? As the Chinese proverb has it, "the mountains are high and the emperor is far away". I don't know the answer but wonder if Duterte is playing realpolitik, as he sees it?

Justin Glyn SJ | 16 August 2017  

Thanks Justin, I'm sure you're right, I'm just not sure exactly how he sees it. Also, I think his campaign message was that the mountains aren't so high, and that he as emperor wouldn't be so far away. But perhaps the point is that this message is proving difficult to maintain?

Daniel Kleinsman | 17 August 2017  

That's true, too. What I meant by the proverb is that the Philippines are clearly at the sharp end of Chinese policy in the South China Sea. He may well feel that while the US military may offer to deal with ISIS in Marawi, they (and any number of court decisions in his favour) would not provide effective protection for his country against further Chinese encroachment and that a friendly relationship with that country is a priority. That said, as you say, he is not building a reputation for predictability or consistency.

Justin Glyn SJ | 18 August 2017  

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