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Duterte’s personal game could lead to choppier waters for Asean

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared that his recent four-day state visit to China would be the defining moment of his presidency. Certainly, his comments in Beijing made history for a sitting Philippine President. Speaking at a bilateral business forum, Mr Duterte announced his separation from the United States militarily and economically.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared that his recent four-day state visit to China would be the defining moment of his presidency. Certainly, his comments in Beijing made history for a sitting Philippine President. Speaking at a bilateral business forum, Mr Duterte announced his separation from the United States militarily and economically.

Echoing a revisionist Cold War view of the present, he contended that the US had lost the Philippines and that his country would ideologically join with China and Russia against the world.

This is in stark contrast to his predecessor’s policy. Under President Benigno Aquino III, the Philippines had been an ardent supporter of US President Barack Obama’s Asia-Pacific rebalance policy, and had taken the firmest line against China’s unlawful actions in the South China Sea.

The Philippines’ relations with East Asia’s major powers matter for Southeast Asia. The Philippines will assume the chairmanship of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) next year, and will take over from Singapore as coordinator of the Asean-China dialogue partner relations in 2018.

WHAT IS DUTERTE’S BEEF WITH AMERICA?

Mr Duterte’s first trip to China has led some to draw parallels with the pre-colonial Asian order where smaller, weaker peripheral political entities sent delegations to the Middle Kingdom seeking Chinese benevolence.

Mr Duterte admitted that separation from the US would require a new dependent relationship with China, as he proclaimed his own Chinese ancestry, adding that 25 million Filipinos shared this with him.

He even claimed that American larynxes were different from Asian ones, and that this explained their lack of civility. He made no mention of his own larynx and proclivity for profanity.

Mr Duterte’s public comments in China and upon his return to Davao City on Saturday morning, where he again sharply criticised the US, are a reflection of his leftist nationalist view of Philippine history.

He is the first Philippine President to proudly declare his militant left political origins and to have studied under the leader of the Communist Party of the Philippines, “Joma” Sison.

His Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay also professes to the same view — that the US colonial legacy has prevented Philippine society and state from attaining full independence and sovereign equality, and from fully embracing its natural geographic and civilisational location in Asia. The US-Philippine alliance is the most profound and problematic institutional manifestation of this colonial legacy of arrested development.

Mr Yasay, in a Facebook post then distributed by his department on Oct 6 , frets that: “The US held on to invisible chains that reined us in towards dependency and submission as little brown brothers not capable of true independence and freedom.”

The lack of contrition by successive US governments for colonial abuses and the dependent nature of the alliance relationship referred to in Mr Yasay’s post aggravate this sense of historical grievance towards the former colonial ruler.

Boilerplate US criticisms of the questionable means of Mr Duterte’s crusade against drugs and a decision decades ago not to grant him a visa to enter the US seem to reinforce the President’s negative view of the US and US-Philippine relations.

After returning from China, Mr Duterte reiterated that he would refuse to visit the US during his term.

The favoured policy remedy to this identity problem is an independent foreign policy where the country emancipates itself through a much more distant relationship with the US.

Closer economic and security relations with major Asian powers, particularly those like China and Russia that are not allied with the US, are diplomatic means to this psychological end.

This ambitious attempt to use external relations to remedy perceived problems with the Philippine post-colonial psyche naturally has led to much confusion inside and outside the country.

Attempts by Mr Duterte and government officials to assuage any concerns often aggravate them.

Following Mr Duterte’s comments in China, his administration’s economic team quickly released a statement saying that the President did not actually mean cutting off economic ties with the US.

It stated: “We will maintain relations with the West, but we desire stronger integration with our neighbours. We share the oriental culture conducive to better understanding with our regional partners.”

Upon his return, the President expanded on what military separation means. “What I was really saying was, separation of a foreign policy. In the past, and until I became President, we always follow what the US would give as the cue.” This may, or may not, mean any changes to the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement signed by the two allies in 2014.

As for closer relations with Russia and China, Mr Duterte mused they could take the form of a military alliance or an economic bloc.

The President’s milestone visit to China has clarified his particular view of Philippine history.

If he translates this into actual policy, then the Philippines could swing from being the closest ally of the US in South-east Asia to the closest partner of China among the major countries in the region.

That would be a defining moment for the Philippines and the region, as it would further weaken any Asean stance on China’s unlawful actions in the South China Sea and enhance China’s influence in the region.

This would put pressure on other Asean countries and unsettle the US rebalance to the region, likely resulting in the US seeking closer ties with more reliable partners such as Singapore.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Malcolm Cook is a Senior Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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