Duterte trumps Trump

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s call for US troops and advisors to leave the Philippines, shortly after issuing an expletive ridden description of President Barack Obama, needs to be taken seriously.

Yes, Duterte swaggers and uses theatrics to his domestic political advantage. Yes, he has embarked on a campaign of extra-judicial killings of drug traffickers – a campaign that has significant public support. And now he highlights the threat posed by Muslim separatists and the Islamist Abu Sayaf group above any posed by China, presumably thinking he can be more effective againt the insurgency without US soldiers.

But there is a much broader context to his pivot away from the US. First, he is well placed to appreciate the limits of the mutual defence treaty binding the two countries. The US never made any moves to prevent China placing a stranglehold on Scarborough Shoal ― a reef in the South China Sea that is just 250 miles away from Manila.

The arbitration ruling from The Hague has indeed sided in favour of the Philippines, dismissing all Chinese claims to the area. But it hasn’t changed the situation on the ground in the slightest.

Duterte is looking to the future, and at two potential American presidents. One, Hillary Clinton, went further than anybody else in the Obama administration to support Philippines and other states contesting China’s claims in the Sluth China Sea. But Duterte is more likely to believe in the chances of Donald Trump, with whom he shares some traits. International law is not a bulwark to Duterte, who entertains a quarrel with the Obama administration over his own disregard for law in the campaign against drug traffic.

The Obama administration’s extreme wariness about engaging in any action beyond military rebalancing is creating serious doubts among its Asian allies. Especially since in endorsing the last, March 2016 UN sanction resolution against North Korea, it effectively subcontracted its proposed course of action regarding North Korea’s nuclear tests to China.

Yes, Asian nations are still running to the US for military cover against Chinese encroachments, but do they really believe the cavalry is going to come to their rescue?

Yes, Asian nations are still running to the US for military cover against Chinese encroachments, but do they really believe the cavalry is going to come to their rescue? The only country that has benefited from a binding commitment vis-à-vis a maritime dispute is Japan, because after much waiting, the Obama administration confirmed that the contested Senkaku Islands were covered by the US-Japan Security Treaty. Failure to implement it would be an earth-shaking event in Asia, and for the moment Japan prefers to believe that the US stands behind its commitment.

Over in Washington there is no shortage of self-confessed isolationists ― most of them also self-proclaimed realists ― who think the South China Sea is not worth fighting over. Many  think the same about Taiwan, as did they for Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Ukraine.

The great retrenchment of the Western alliance has begun. And it will be Trump that sees it through, if elected. He has already graphically explained that allies will only get what they pay for, and that the US should first defend itself before getting involved in anyone else’s business.

Duterte is a realist when he says there is simply no way the Philippines could militarily balance China on its own – and there is no way that it could pay for the sort of US military alliance Trump proposes. But the Filipino president faces another issue ― Vietnam, the other front-line state in the South China Sea.

Vietnam carefully avoided joining the Philippines’’ legal action in The Hague, even though it also gains in principle from much of the outcome. Instead, it has opened direct lines to China and sought to repress anti-Chinese sentiment at home.

And so Duterte ― a high-stake gambler ― trumps Trump, or indeed Hillary, if she comes to power. He’s willing to bet that because of self-interest and risk avoidance, the US will never reverse the status quo in the South China Sea ― one that now runs in favour of China.

Duterte’s rash move is another nail in the coffin for any unified ASEAN stance against China – something which, admittedly, was less and less likely. 

In any case, he had been encouraged by Washington to talk it over directly with China. Sending former president Fidel Ramos, possibly the man with the best American connections, was in line with the United States’ wishes. But the Chinese didn’t budge an inch on the issue – on the contrary, in recent days they have increased their presence around Scarborough Shoal, with many predicting that they will build up artificial structures there. Clearly, the United States haven’t had an impact on China’s position.

Duterte’s rash move is another nail in the coffin for any unified ASEAN stance against China – something which, admittedly, was less and less likely. It will reverberate all the way to Europe – where similar doubts about the implementation of the post-war US alliance are usually matched by an exaggerated belief in America’s so-called “pivot to Asia”. The stark truth is that America is pulling back, and this increases the chances of fragmentation in the West.

One huge question mark remains. What will China do? It has never responded, or even taken seriously, any dovish openings in the region. Japan’s Yukio Hatoyama, an advocate of a peaceful community, Korea’s Park Geun-hye, who tilted towards Beijing, and Taiwan’s Ma Ying-jeou have not achieved breakthroughs on their own issues with China. A previous agreement by the Philippines – with China and Vietnam – for joint exploration in the South China Sea has floundered, and now lies forgotten. Chinese leaders do not seem to believe Asian democracies can move away from the United States’ protective mantle.

But this time is different. There are visible uncertainties about US security guarantees. The Philippines are poor and with a big stake in securing better economic relations with China. Duterte is bound to be attacked by the West in any case for his disregard of the rule of law in his vendetta against drug traffickers.

This time, responding to him is clearly in the Chinese interest. By setting aside the issue of sovereignty, the ruling from The Hague does offer China the possibility of compromising without having to grant anything in terms of sovereignty.

Only time will tell if Xi Jinping’s leadership ― not exactly famed for its nimbleness ― is smart enough to take up the offer. If it does, America’s risk-free policy of backing ASEAN states from the side-lines is dead in the water.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Director, Asia and China Programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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