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Sieren's China: Duterte's clever concession

Frank Sieren / actMay 12, 2016

The new president of the Philippines does not intend to escalate the argument with China over the South China Sea through further provocation. Frank Sieren writes that Duterte is pursuing a cleverer long-term strategy.

Philippinen Wahlen Unterstützer von Rodrigo "Digong" Duterte Ausschnitt
Image: Reuters/E. De Castro/Detail

The new president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, does not want to waste time with regard to China. He won the elections earlier this week by a large margin: 80 percent of 55 million voters went to the polls on Monday and Duterte is thought to have won 40 percent of their votes, well ahead of his rivals.

With regard to China, he does not want to wait until he is sworn in at the end of June. Instead of further cooperation with the US or Japan he has clearly signaled with which country he wants to work more closely in future. A request to meet Duterte from the US ambassador in Manila was put on ice. This is a sign that he wants to rethink a recent agreement to have US troops stationed in the Philippines.

Frank SierenImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Tirl

Negotiating and defending interests

Duterte still has a lot to prove when it comes to foreign policy. He wants to negotiate with China over the territorial dispute and not lose sight of China as a trading partner and investor. The real well-being of his fellow citizens is more important to him than potential security concerns in the South China Sea.

Of course, this does not mean that Duterte will accept China's territorial claims in the South China Sea without a whimper. But what is certain is that provocation will not take on the same proportions as during the electoral campaign. About a year ago, the top Philippine general Gregorio Pio Catapang - with the backing of the president - went to one of the islands claimed by China and swore to defend it against any kind of aggression.

One of the aspects that led to bitterness during the election campaign was the fact that a UN arbitration court in The Hague is due to rule this month or next on the maritime dispute between China and the Philippines. It is not likely to rule in China's favor. Beijing has already made clear that it will not recognize the decision that is unbinding and that it will not take part in the process. Duterte seems to be relaxed about this as he also knows that The Hague does not have the power to actually implement certain decisions. He wants a more relaxed attitude towards China even though he is a warhorse who does not shy away from confrontation.

Ruled Davao with an iron hand

The inhabitants of the city of Davao where Dutarte was mayor for over 20 years know that he is not demure. The former lawyer took drastic measures in Davao, making no secret of the fact that he had links with death squads said to have killed gang members, drug addicts and streetchildren without recourse to the law. Davao is now one of the safest cities in the Philippines, with free healthcare for the poor.

During the campaign, the 71-year-old announced that he would personally turn up on one of the islands claimed by China by jet-ski if negotiations did not progress. This is no longer on the cards. Fortunately. His jet-ski would surely have run out of gas on the way.

DW's Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.