Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is pivoting away from US influence and towards China
When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Rodrigo Duterte’s family home in Davao City last month, it was more than just the shared durian that suggested the Philippine president’s radical new “independent foreign policy” was bearing fruit.
While the pair indulged in a day of dressed-down diplomacy – Abe in a white short-sleeved polo shirt, Duterte in an untucked flannel shirt and leather shoes with no socks – and photo opportunities that included the Japanese leader visiting Duterte’s bedroom and naming a rare Philippine eagle “Sakura” (in reference to Japan’s fabled cherry blossom), observers were quick to assign deeper geopolitical significance to what was otherwise a laid-back affair.
The headline act of that day was Abe’s parting gift – a pledge of a US$9 billion aid package and an offer to help Duterte in his trademark war on drugs and terror.
Most analysts saw this as a reflection of Abe’s determination to match recent largesse from China, which in October pledged US$15 billion in investment and in January agreed to cooperate on 30 projects worth US$3.7 billion. To Duterte supporters, it was proof that his diplomatic pivot away from the United States and into the arms of China and Russia was starting to pay off.
But if Duterte’s pivot – which many see as an effort to play the Philippines’ rival suitors off against each other – has been reaping some early dividends, some experts warn it has the potential not only to undermine US hegemony in the region, but jeopardise the Philippines’ control of its natural resources and even threaten Duterte’s own grip on power.
Those suggestions gained credence this week when the Philippines’ Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay spelled out for the first time the Duterte government’s policy on the South China Sea, telling lawmakers: “My position, which is the official position, is that the disputed part of the South China Sea has never belonged to anyone.”
That came as a marked departure from the country’s previous stance, which saw it take its long-standing dispute against Chinese territorial claims in the sea to an international arbitration court in The Hague. The court ruled in the Philippines’ favour in July and Duterte’s apparent willingness to forgo that advantage has lent weight to suggestions he may be willing to sideline sovereignty claims in return for influence with China.
“It’s a dangerous game that [Duterte’s] playing,” said American historian Alfred McCoy, who believes that in accommodating China in the South China Sea, the Philippines is in danger of becoming a pawn in a two-pronged strategy by China to deal a “crippling blow to US global power”.