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Duterte breaks all rules

Thomas Latschan Bonn 9558
Thomas Latschan
October 20, 2016

Without any warning, Philippine President Duterte has turned the security architecture of Southeast Asia on its head. It's a severe blow to the US, and an extremely risky move for Manila, writes DW's Thomas Latschan.

China Peking Staatsbesuch Duterte Präsident Philippinen
Image: Getty Images/AFP/T. Peter

He actually did it. Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines' unpredictable president, has declared his "separation" from his country's longstanding ally and defense partner, the United States, during a state visit to China. 

This can only be characterized as an unprecedented diplomatic affront, in that the Philippine president goes to China and while attending an economic forum there, he announces that Manila's decade-long alliance with Washington is over. 

"Your stay in my country was for your own benefit. So time to say goodbye, my friend," he said, as if addressing the US. He also repeated his denunciation of Obama as a "son of a whore." The remarks were packaged by Duterte as a gift to his new friends in Beijing, and what an astonishing turnaround in ties they represent!

Mutual interests

Over the last 30 years, the Philippines has been one of the most important US allies in Asia. The bilateral relationship has served well not only American interests, but also those of the Southeast Asian nation. For instance, strong defense ties with the US have freed the Philippines of the need to build a powerful military of its own for the defense of the country. This has allowed Manila's armed forces to focus primarily on fighting threats posed by internal actors such as rebel groups active in the country's south.

Latschan Thomas Kommentarbild App
DW's Thomas Latschan

It seems doubtful that the ramshackle Philippine navy would have been able to defend the country from external threats all by itself.

But now the whole US strategy in the Asia Pacific, aimed at countering China's growing power and influence in the region, is under threat of an imminent collapse. Duterte's moves come at an inopportune time for Washington, where a "lame duck" President Barack Obama is spending his last days in office. Even after the presidential election in November, the US will need some time to reposition its strategy toward China and Southeast Asia.

Beijing, on the other hand, is likely to triumph. It's such a rapid, sharp turn in fortunes. Just a few months ago, China and the Philippines were engaged in a bitter battle over their competing claims over islands and reefs in the South China Sea. Beijing even lost a lawsuit filed by Manila at an international tribunal in The Hague. China has never recognized the legitimacy of the court to tackle the case.  

But now China has almost bought what it always wanted: bilateral talks instead of multilateral arrangements. Duterte granted this victory to his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, in exchange for billions in economic aid, trade deals and infrastructure projects.

Really 'independent'?  

Duterte has touted his "independent" foreign policy as a great success, while ignoring the tremendous risks his strategy entails. He might be able to generate some short-term gains for his country, particularly in the economic arena, with the help of the money he might receive from China in return for his tilt away from the US.

But even within the Philippines, many analysts warn that Duterte's policy shift is unlikely to translate into a "more independent" Philippines, but rather it would merely transform the country from being reliant on the US to one dependent on China. Nevertheless, Duterte doesn't have any regard for such concerns. Instead, he places all his eggs in one basket when it comes to Philippine foreign policy.

It's, however, a complete misreading on Duterte's part if he believes his giant neighbor across the sea China perceives the Philippines as a partner on an equal footing. In Beijing, Duterte pushed at an open door, while violently slamming the back door to the US.

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