Last year brought political upheaval in Southeast Asia as much as in the West. Away from the twin shocks of Brexit and Trump, China’s new relationship with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte could prove to have just as seismic an impact.
Duterte first grabbed the world’s attention in September 2016 after an outburst directed at Barack Obama, during which he appeared to call the American president a “son of a whore” who should “go to hell,” after the Obama administration questioned whether Duterte’s anti-drug campaign had violated international human rights law. The U.S. government cancelled a meeting between Obama and Duterte following the Philippine president’s remarks.
There were soon broader ramifications to the war of words. Unsatisfied with proposed arms deals from U.S. suppliers, Duterte made clear that if the U.S. balked, China would meet his needs, claiming that President Xi Jinping’s administration had told him to “just come over and sign, and everything will be delivered.”
And delivered it was. Just weeks after his tête-à-tête with Obama, Beijing welcomed Duterte on a state visit. The Philippine government later announced that $13.5 billion worth of trade deals had been signed, with other agreements inked in areas such as culture, tourism, anti-narcotics policy, and maritime affairs. But the visit was more than just the usual rounds of trade deals and handshakes. Before a cheering crowd, President Duterte also announced his “separation from the United States,” both militarily and economically, and implied that China made for a more obliging partner than the U.S.
On the subject of the ongoing South China Sea territorial dispute, Duterte — who had previously boasted that he would ride out to sea on a Jet Ski to plant the Philippine flag on a disputed shoal — suddenly showed remarkable restraint, saying that there was “no sense fighting over a body of water,” and that the Philippines wanted to talk about friendship and business, not war.
Duterte’s détente may yet be a relatively short-term strategic ploy to ensure that the Chinese government does not leave the Philippines in the economic doldrums. After all, his country’s claim to disputed areas of the South China Sea was recently bolstered by a ruling from the U.N. Permanent Court for Arbitration that China’s island-building in the region is illegal. However, evidence is mounting that there may be room for negotiation even here. Commenting at the time, the Philippine president played down the significance of the ruling: “In the play of politics now, I will set aside the arbitral ruling. I will not impose anything on China. Why? Because the politics here in Southeast Asia are changing.”
Then, in December, an American drone was seized by the Chinese navy 50 miles off the Philippine coast. Authorities in the capital, Manila, refused to take sides in the ensuing spat. One rationale behind the seizure is that China hoped to test both American resolve to defend its interests in the South China Sea and the sincerity of the Philippines’ apparent pivot toward China. The failure of the U.S. to give chase and Manila’s reluctance to back up its American ally marked an important victory for Beijing.
This departure from the historical status quo is a major boon for the Xi administration, given Beijing’s preference for bilateral — not multilateral — dispute resolution. While the new year has seen Philippine officials tone down their president’s comments about the U.S., perhaps in response to the drone-snatching incident, the incoming Philippine ambassador to China, Jose Santiago Santa Romana, revealed an insight into Beijing’s view of the newly compliant Philippines, claiming that his country had been seen as “a geopolitical pawn or Trojan horse of the U.S.,” but that “now they [China] look at us as a friendly neighbor.”
Indeed, there is more to the shift than high-level politics: Friendlier relations would likely mean more Chinese tourists bound for the Philippines and easier access to exports from the country, in particular the tropical fruits that were targets for boycotts in the aftermath of the UNPCA ruling.
For Xi, a friendly neighbor is also a more malleable neighbor. Should U.S. engagement diminish in Southeast Asia, China may see more opportunities to exploit the vast oil reserves lying beneath the turbulent waters of the South China Sea. If these precious resources are to be shared — a question that underpins much of the tension afflicting the region — Duterte would be wise to act now to improve ties with Beijing, or risk losing out entirely on his piece of what is likely to be a China-dominated pie.
However, increased engagement between Xi and Duterte will focus attention on a growing constellation of leaders who prefer strong words and actions to protracted negotiations. Russian President Vladimir Putin, American President-elect Donald Trump, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are three strongmen who tend to prefer decisiveness to nuance.
It remains to be seen whether the shift in personality dynamics will accelerate stagnant cooperation efforts in the region, but early indications suggest that the new class of leaders places a premium on respect from peers. During his state visit to China, Duterte said: “The other countries, United States, EU [sic], instead of helping us, they know that we are short of money… [but] all they had to do was criticize. China never criticized.” At least for the moment, China’s longstanding principle of mutual noninterference seems to be coming into its own.
Moreover, the stability of a strongman consensus should not be taken for granted. The failure of the post-war alliance between China and the former USSR represents the difficulties of a union that leaned heavily on personal relationships between top-level leaders at the expense of strong institutional frameworks. Given the penchants of Xi, Trump, and Duterte for grandstanding, it may only be a matter of time before one of them steps on another’s toes. Indeed, it is a gross understatement to say that Duterte — who is alleged to have personally murdered drug barons and thrown a kidnapper out of a helicopter — is a hotheaded, unpredictable personality. Managing such a personality will be a true test of China’s ability to consolidate its position as a regional leader.
(Header image: A child holds the national flags of China and the Philippines before a welcoming ceremony for both countries’ leaders at the Great Hall of the People, Beijing, China, October 20, 2016. Thomas Peter/VCG)