Beyond calling Barack Obama names that would naturally lead in another setting to a brawl behind the schoolyard, the canny if vulgar Duterte is surprisingly effective at doing what smaller powers are supposed to do in a multipolar setting: playing larger powers off one another.
With the Philippines long seen as being comfortably in the pocket of Washington, the country’s new leader has initiated a policy of strategic drift away from the US, moving to a more equidistant position between America and China.
Duterte being Duterte, he has done so with the subtlety of a mallet. Proclaiming (in Beijing no less) that America has lost its rivalry in East Asia with China, the Filipino President offered to immediately leave Beijing and jet off to Moscow to confer with anti-American champion, Vladimir Putin, and to definitively ally the Philippines within a China-Russia-Iranian axis. As he memorably put it, “America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your [China’s] ideological flow.” Was it my imagination or did the smiles at the usual diplomatic banquet in Beijing seem unusually broad that night?
But Duterte’s buffoonish facade masks a cunning Machiavellian thinker; while his strategic hedging is real, he has not moved (and does not want to move) from America’s pocket into China’s. The whole goal of the exercise is to re-assert the Philippines’ strategic independence and the material benefits that flow from it.
Proving he is crazy like a fox, Duterte’s rewards were not long in coming. During his diplomatic visit to Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping offered the loud-mouthed Philippine leader $9bn in loan credits, also agreeing to $13.5bn in trade deals, as a reward for Duterte’s “shift” and for agreeing to renew bilateral talks (effectively setting aside a pro-Manila Hague tribunal ruling) resolving boundary disputes in the South China Sea. Given that Manila is desperately in need of such funds (particularly regarding infrastructure investment) to keep its booming economy going, Duterte’s sea change makes eminent realist strategic sense.
But there is a deeper problem lurking beneath the atmospherics here, one that does actually endanger America’s heretofore dominant strategic position in the region; a real questioning by Asian allies of Washington’s strategic dependability. Even before his shocking trip, Duterte wondered aloud whether a feckless and self-involved America would honour its 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty with the Philippines, and come to the country’s assistance in the event of an attack by China.
Obama’s feckless announcement of a red line in Syria (and then his correct decision not to enter that hellhole) has surely damaged US credibility around the world. If America’s strategic word is not to be trusted, then Duterte’s strategy of strategic hedging between the US and China becomes the only sensible policy for the region as a whole to adopt.
But far worse looms ahead, a true geostrategic disaster in the making. The Obama White House has rightly called completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal the lynchpin of America’s Pivot to Asia, as it binds America and its allies economically to each other in the new era just as it sets regional trade rules which China must ultimately accept or be excluded (as it now is) from such a desirable club.
America’s failure to follow through on such a beneficial agreement will have doleful geostrategic consequences. And here the US is sleepwalking toward disaster. Hillary Clinton, the likely new President, has already cynically disavowed an agreement she helped negotiate, trying to fend off the clear protectionist bent of a majority of her party. Given Donald Trump’s characteristically shrill and mindless denunciation of the pact, its only hope is passage in the lame duck session of Congress, between November 2016 and January 2017. For the horrifying news is that, after that, large free trade pacts of any kind will be dead on arrival.
Imagine the US having to go back to its East Asian allies after all the laborious TPP negotiations, telling them America was just kidding about the whole thing. The very next day, China will whisper in America’s nervous Asian friends’ ears that obviously Washington can no longer be trusted. Here poisonous American domestic politics will have directly contributed to increased global risk, with Duterte amounting to just a very shrewd canary in the coal mine. For the real risk to America’s Pivot to Asia isn’t Duterte, or even China. It lies in the mirror.
City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.