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What Philippines' president Duterte is telling us about China

  • 16 August 2017
  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.

He 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