What will Rodrigo Duterte's pivot toward China mean for the US?

Rodrigo Duterte separation from US? The Philippines president says that he wants his country 'to be a part of the greater plans of China about the whole of Asia.' But that isn't necessarily a negative for the US.

Ng Han Guan/Pool/Reuters
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (l.) and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands after a signing ceremony held in Beijing Thursday.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is notorious for his dramatic, shoot-from-the-lip declarations. Hyperbole could be his middle name.

But on the face of it, he was not exaggerating when he announced that his current visit to China would be “a key turning point” in his country’s history.

After firing off a string of insulting remarks aimed at America and Barack Obama, the president of the United States’ oldest treaty ally in Asia told the Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua this week that he now wants his country “to be a part of the greater plans of China about the whole of Asia.”

“It’s time to say goodbye” to the United States, he told a Filipino crowd in Beijing on Wednesday. “Foreign policy veers now towards” China, he added. “No more American interference.”

This is big. For most of his presidency, Mr. Obama has been pivoting the United States towards Asia, asserting its role as a Pacific power. Until six months ago, Manila was Washington’s most loyal lieutenant in this endeavor. Now Mr. Duterte, who took office last June, is engaged in his own pivot – away from the US.

His threats to curb US military activities in the Philippines, if he followed through on them, “would make it harder for the US to maintain a military position in Asia as a counterbalance to China,” says Michael Swaine, an expert on regional security issues at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

More broadly, he worries, other countries in South East Asia might start drawing some conclusions. “If it is seen as beneficial to the Philippines to be close to Beijing, that would be an indication of the decline of US influence in Asia,” Dr. Swaine suggests. “That would undermine the whole rationale behind the rebalance to Asia,” which is to boost US authority.

The Philippines has been in the front line of resistance to Beijing’s claim to most of the South China Sea. Manila even won an international arbitration case last June, asserting its rights to a number of islands in the face of Chinese pretensions.

But since becoming President, Mr. Duterte has laid aside that trump card and sought China’s friendship, while questioning the value of his country’s 65-year-old alliance with the United States.

Is there any silver lining here for Washington? Perhaps, says Susan Shirk, a top official in the Clinton administration who now runs the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego.

“If China is able to stabilize relations with its neighbors that is good for the US,” she says. “We are not in the kind of geopolitical rivalry where if China has friends, that’s bad for us.”

And if Duterte goes home with a deal allowing Filipino fishermen back onto Scarborough Shoal – an islet that the Philippines claims but which China seized in 2012 – that means that Beijing will not be tempted to turn it into another fortified airstrip challenging the United States.

But for China “to pick off an ally of the US and have it become belligerent and hostile to us is obviously a bad thing,” Dr. Shirk adds.

Behind Duterte’s apparently impetuous reversal of Philippines foreign policy lie a number of possible motives. To start with, he has made no secret of his desire to hew a more independent path, less reliant on the United States. That means forging better relations with other superpowers, such as China.

He has also promised his people greater prosperity: only China is ready to stump up the cash and the knowhow needed to build the railroads and other infrastructure Duterte wants, and Beijing will surely shower him with gifts as he leaves China tomorrow.

At the same time, the Filipino president is clearly furious at President Obama’s criticism of his brutal extrajudicial campaign against drug dealers and users, which has killed upwards of 3,000 people. A Chinese spokesman said Wednesday that Beijing “appreciates” that campaign.

But Duterte’s sudden fling with Beijing is not without its risks. For a start, it flies in the face of popular sentiment at home: a poll published in Manila on Wednesday found that China’s trust rating among the general public was minus 33; America’s trust rating was plus 66.

And the Philippines military establishment is even more pro-American and anti-Chinese, points out Richard Heydarian, a politics professor at De La Salle University in Manila. “Duterte risks a huge backlash if he joins the China camp,” he warns.

So perhaps he won’t go all the way. When the warmth of China’s welcome wears off and Duterte consults his cabinet, Professor Heydarian suggests, the president might follow the sort of line that another fractious US ally, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has adopted.

President Erdogan lashes out against Washington from time to time, and cozies up to Moscow, but Turkey remains a full member of NATO. Likewise, Heydarian predicts, even if Duterte calls off some joint maneuvers, “the fundamental military relationship between the US and the Philippines will remain robust.”

That doesn’t mean that officials in Washington won’t have to develop a thick skin though, he says. “Duterte will be a very prickly ally.”

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