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'A massive affront'

October 21, 2016

The Philippine president has announced his rupture with the US and tilted towards China seeking closer partnership with Beijing. Regional security and economic interests are at stake, says analyst Siegfried Herzog.

Kombobild Obama Duterte
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/N. Shrestha/M. Irham

DW: President Rodrigo Duterte announced his "separation" from the Philippines' longtime ally, the US, during his state visit to China. What is your take on this move?

Siegfried Herzog: The move certainly represents a massive affront against the US. Duterte has shared deep animosity towards Washington for years, and the US criticism of his anti-drug campaign in recent months has only augmented that deep dislike. We're observing its effect in the form of his angry anti-US rhetoric since he took office.

The Philippines has been a strategic ally to the US since its independence in 1946. Washington has so far been restrained in its response to Duterte's assertions as other members of his government have strived to clarify the president's incendiary remarks by denying a radical turnaround in Philippine foreign policy.

It's the same case even this time round, with Duterte's Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez and Economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia stressing that Manila will not break its ties with the West, but rather wants to promote stronger economic integration with its Asian neighbors. Formal steps have so far not been undertaken.

Duterte is notorious for his impulsive communication style. He is extremely thin-skinned and reacts aggressively to criticism. That's why an over-the-top response to his foul-mouthed rhetoric may not necessarily be useful. Daniel Russel, the top US diplomat for the Asia-Pacific region, will visit Manila this weekend and it will give an opportunity to clarify the potential implications of Duterte's pronouncements.

Is the Philippines sacrificing the regional security architecture for the sake of its economic interests?

The real question is whether Duterte is willing to sacrifice both the country's regional security alliance as well as its economic interests as part of his pro-China push. That's because the Philippine economy is far more intertwined with the US than with China. The US accounts for a third of the billions of dollars in remittances transferred to the country by the Filipino diaspora.

Siegfried Herzog
Herzog: 'Duterte has shared deep animosity towards Washington for years'Image: FNS

The US is also a much bigger source of foreign investment in the Philippines than China. And the most important sector of the nation's economy - the business process outsourcing industry - is a major source of economic growth and job creation. The service providers predominantly work with US clients.

These businesses have now become hesitant with regard to new investments. Obviously, Duterte now expects massive amounts of aid from China and will probably receive it. As a result of their opaque dealings, some major projects undertaken previously by Chinese businesses in the Philippines became mired in corruption allegations and eventually failed. Against this backdrop, it remains an open question as to whether China can really contribute to the Philippines' economic progress.

The impact the Chinese economic activity has had on Africa is a case in point. As in that continent, an alliance with China might pay off politically, but the benefits it will reap for the population are not so obvious.

How do you assess the possibility of Duterte being able to carry out his new foreign policy despite opposition to it from at least some sections of society?

On the one hand, Duterte enjoys a high approval rate among the country's electorate. At the start of their terms, nearly all presidents have high ratings. But Duterte is also being seen by many a determined politician who ultimately wants to clean up the rotten system that only serves the interests of the elites. This is quite popular in the country.

But there are also warning signals. Surveys show that while people back his anti-drug campaign, they don't support mass killings of suspects without holding independent trials. And Duterte is relatively isolated when it comes to his strategy towards the US and China, with polls showing that Filipinos view the US much more positively than China.

It's, therefore, very risky for Duterte to side with Beijing. Although he enjoys the backing of the nation's communists in this endeavor, most Filipinos have closer ties to the US. This is particularly the case when it comes to the country's military, political and business classes, who are critical of Deuterte's polarizing rhetoric.

The military, in particular, has been overwhelmed by Duterte's moves. But after decades of struggle against communist rebels, it's not thrilled to see the communists in the cabinet. Furthermore, after decades of close cooperation with the US and in the context of ongoing threats and humiliations from China, this about-turn announced by Duterte is anything but a given.

Duterte's inner circle consists of his close confidants from the southern city of Davao, where he had served as mayor for decades before winning the presidency. And they all lack experience at the national level. To govern effectively, Duterte has roped in a number of technocrats and people from allied political camps, but many of them do not share his views towards the US.

This disagreement was also evident in China, where some members of the president's delegation did not fully stand behind Duterte's announcement. He, therefore, risks a certain alienation among key groups.

On the other hand, China will not criticize Duterte for his anti-drug war or his generally authoritarian style of governance, in a manner that Western governments do. Beiing will rather support him. If this is a relevant motive for him, the polarization in the Philippines would be even sharper.

The US currently has five military bases in the Philippines. What does Duterte's announcement mean for Washington's strategy in the Asia Pacific?

The joint military exercises haven't so far been officially ended. Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay says many of the president's pronouncements haven't been discussed with the ministry, which leads to ambiguities regarding Manila's future course of action. Furthermore, for the annulment of the joint drills, a separate agreement would be necessary. And it need not affect the pact related to the rotational deployment of US troops in the country.

But should Duterte's announcement be implemented, it would represent a bitter setback for the US and President Barack Obama's strategic pivot to Asia. In this particular instance, however, one shouldn't solely blame the Obama administration as the US remains popular in the Philippines. The whole responsibility for the policy turnaround lies with Duterte and his inner circle.

There are, of course, a few factors arguing in favor of closer ties with China. There is a large Chinese minority in the country that is well integrated into society and can act as a bridge. The territorial dispute in the South China Sea (SCS) is also of great importance to the Philippines, whose position over the row recently received a spectacular boost from the ruling issued by the international tribunal in The Hague.   

China's angry reaction to the verdict and the intensified nationalist rhetoric, have increased the risk of armed confrontation. Against this backdrop, the key question is whether it would be better for the Philippines to become a pawn between the US and China, rather than risking a conflict with Beijing. 

Most countries in the region would rather not have to choose between the two. But there is already the temptation to lean towards the supposedly stronger one. The US must now consider how to respond, not only to the Philippines, but also to other countries in the region.

The first 100 days of Rodrigo Duterte

Europe, too, cannot remain indifferent to the developments in the SCS, because too much is at stake: Will international law be respected by big powers? Will democratic values and international human rights standards be weakened further?

China and the Philippines have agreed to tackle the territorial dispute bilaterally - a long-held demand of Beijing. What does this decision mean for ASEAN, the code of conduct in the seas and the island dispute in the SCS?

The decision is a setback in all these areas. China has done its utmost to prevent the ASEAN from adopting a common stance on the SCS dispute. The Philippines has until now pushed for it, while China's allies Laos and Cambodia have thus far blocked it. But the larger ASEAN nations have sided with the Philippines and Vietnam, another country that has a territorial spat with Beijing. But now if Manila joins the Chinese camp, then that would spell the end of efforts to agree on a common ASEAN position on the SCS dispute.

Siegfried Herzog is Regional Director for Southeast Asia at the German foundation Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung.

The interview was conducted by Hao Gui.

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