Duterte’s Losing Game

Anna Benham, Johns Hopkins University:

For many, Rodrigo Duterte is a preview of what the United States with a Trump presidency would look like. Known for his inflammatory statements ranging from referring to Pope Francis as a “son of a whore” in a country that is 86 percent Roman Catholic, to calling for what amounts to mass vigilantism—the murder and execution of drug users without a trial. Most recently, President Duterte has name-called President Obama, prompting the cancellation of an American trip to the Philippines. Most recently, Duterte has demanded that the United States remove its longstanding military presence from the country. However, despite this flaming rhetoric, Duterte is by no means consistent—only two weeks after his call for the expulsion of American troops, he walked his statements back and chastised the American decision to halt the sale of arms to the Philippines.  So the question follows—what is Duterte thinking?

Duterte is currently planning to profit from both an American and Chinese relationship, playing to both countries interests and egos—even when those goals conflict. Not only is he playing, he is losing. Despite the Philippines geographical existence directly east of the South China Sea, it has traditionally remained independent of Chinese influence; however, with the Hague’s rejection of Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea, China has had to re-evaluate how it exercises its influence in the area. It is no coincidence that Duterte’s initial rejection of American troops happened as he returned from a trip from China, during which President Xi Jinping offered the Philippines $9 billion in aid. This indicates a weakening of American presence in the region—and Japan has responded by extending almost 50 million dollars in aid, with additional infrastructure and military support for Duterte’s brutal drug war. However, Duterte is reluctant to surrender the gains that an American alliance has given the Philippines—most notably, relative autonomy from the overwhelming Chinese presence in Southeast Asia.

Duterte is playing a losing game. Even if he manages to receive the massive amounts of aid promised to him by Japan and China, his alienation of his American allies will not endear him to his own constituents, who generally have a more favorable view of the American government than Americans do. In addition, there is a strong suspicion of China and Chinese motives domestically, which, if Duterte continues to pursue a relationship with China, may backfire.

Domestic support for Duterte is currently strong, but it is concerning that Duterte has been attacking traditionally democratic mechanisms of government in his drug war—murdering mayors and judges, and calling for an extermination of drug users and pushers. In response to nearly two thousand dead as a result of Duterte’s drug war, 700,000 Filipinos have turned themselves in for drug related sentences, hoping to be treated with some degree of leniency. It is curious that Duterte still holds a high level of trust and support among Filipinos despite this mass exercise of human rights abuses. There are two possible explanations—that the battle with the drug trade in the Philippines have exhausted and drained Filipinos, who now simply seek a conclusive end, or Duterte is able to selectively control and imprison his dissenters. It is likely that a combination of the two is happening.

Duterte’s focus on the drug war has huge implications for foreign policy—as it is evident a major reason for Duterte’s withdrawal from American alliances has been American concern and reaction to the mass human rights abuses of the Duterte regime. It will be interesting to see how Duterte’s machinations will turn out—because he is a clumsy manipulator of China and American interests, it is unlikely that he will succeed in balancing the conflict between the two great powers. Most likely, he will lose his game, and end up alienating everyone in the South China Sea region—including his own people.

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