The Philippines under President Duterte

Over the past few years, the Philippines has emerged as one of China’s staunchest critics, particularly over the festering maritime disputes in the South China Sea. The dangerous standoff between Manila and Beijing over the Scarborough Shoal in mid-2012 torpedoed almost four decades of constructive bilateral relations. Since then, high-level communications channels have been effectively frozen, with both Filipino and Chinese officials often adopting confrontational rhetoric against each other.

Perturbed by what it perceives as creeping Chinese invasion of Philippine-claimed waters and territories, the Benigno Aquino administration became the first regional government to take China to international court—a critical decision that carries immense legal ramifications. In response, President Xi Jinping has shunned any formal summit with his Filipino counterpart, whose government, in turn, has expressed doubts vis-à-vis the utility of bilateral dialogue and large-scale economic engagement with China.

To underscore the vitriolic nature of Philippine-China relations, the Aquino administration didn’t sign up to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank until the last minute. Meanwhile, the disputes in the South China Sea have simply escalated, mainly thanks to China’s massive reclamation activities and its recent deployment of increasingly sophisticated military hardware to disputed land features.

The election of a new Filipino president, however, could contribute to the revival of bilateral ties with China, which has expressed its willingness to find a peaceful solution to rapidly deteriorating regional maritime spats. Rodrigo Dutetre, the provincial mayor of Davao city, just won a large plurality (38.5 percent) of votes in the Philippines’ single-round, first-past-the-post electoral system. He edged out his closest rival, seasoned technocrat Manuel “Mar” Roxas, by a comfortable margin of five million votes.

Though internationally notorious for his foul-mouth and controversial statements, the new Filipino president, who has been derisively portrayed as the “Trump of the East,” exhibits an uncharacteristic pragmatism and geopolitical savvy when it comes to the South China Sea disputes and relations with China. He is likely to adopt an equilateral balancing strategy vis-à-vis the United States, a traditional ally, and China, a critical partner in development, refusing to side with one camp against the other.

The ultimate outsider

Only a few months ago, Duterte could be easily dismissed as a nuisance candidate. Unlike the well-known and better-funded mainstream candidates, Dutetre lacked resources and national prominence. He was largely seen as a foul-mouthed provincial mayor, who lacked the wherewithal to pull off a competitive presidential campaign. In fact, at one point, he announced his decision to altogether withdraw from the presidential race, citing his inability to muster the necessary machinery to compete with establishment candidates.

This cemented his image as the ultimate outsider in the race. It didn’t take long, however, before there was a nationwide campaign to support and convince the mayor to throw his hat into the race. In retrospect, many experts believe that Duterte’s professed reluctance was simply a calculated public relations stunt. His stunning victory was the serendipitous outcome of several interrelated developments.

First and foremost, he benefited from the rise of ‘grievance politics’ in the Philippines, which have paved the way for outside the box candidates like Duterte to stand a real chance of electoral success. More than three decades after the demise of the Marcos dictatorship, a growing number of Filipinos have developed “democracy fatigue,” now yearning for strongman candidates, who could promise swift and decisive solutions to the country’s endemic problems such as rampant crime, bureaucratic corruption, and widespread poverty.

Moreover, Duterte skillfully embraced his outsider status, while capitalizing on the vulnerabilities of his opponents. Neophyte Senator Grace Poe, the perennial leader in the pre-election polls, was hobbled by legal challenges to her (citizenship) eligibility as well as her association with reviled politicians and oligarchs. As for Vice President Binay, who was considered a runaway winner not long ago, he confronted a barrage of corruption allegations, which alienated his support base.

Roxas, the anointed successor of President Aquino, foolishly presented himself as a de facto referendum on the incumbent, a strategy that was bound to fail amid rising public anger over lack of inclusive development, deepening infrastructure bottlenecks, and rise in crime rates. The Duterte camp, in response, dismissed rivals as either corrupt liars, or hopelessly incompetent, or a puppet of the ruling oligarchs.

Meanwhile, Duterte presented himself as an independent, competent, and simple-living provincial mayor. He promised safety and effective governance to the national capital region, while offering greater fiscal and political autonomy to peripheral regions of Visayas, where his father came from, and Mindanao, where he built his political career. It didn’t take long before he captured the imagination of voters.

The clear-eyed pragmatist

Throughout the election campaign, Duterte was mostly a loose canon. For some, this was perhaps not only a reflection of his provincial mayor persona, but also a deliberate strategy to stand out in a highly competitive race against (politically correct) establishment candidates. In fact, this allowed him to be constantly in the headlines, and develop a massive following among disgruntled voters, without spending a single penny.

As soon as it became clear that he would become the Philippines’ 16th president, and the first from the island of Mindanao, Duterte, however, transformed into a more pragmatic and statesmanlike figure, swearing not to swear again and reaching out to his rivals and critics. To reassure an anxious business community, he assembled a group of seasoned technocrats and released an orthodox economic agenda.

Duterte revealed his Machiavellian streak not only in his strategic selection of cabinet members, who come from major parties and influential political circles, but even more so on questions of foreign policy. Despite widespread anti-China sentiment in the country, Duterte has consistently, in contrast to his outgoing predecessor, reiterated the necessity for direct dialogue with Beijing and, if mutually satisfactory, concluding a joint development agreement in the South China Sea.

For Duterte, conflict should be avoided, especially since China is a crucial partner in development. In fact, he has openly invited China to commit investments to the Philippines’ creaking infrastructure landscape, often downplaying the significance of the maritime disputes to overall bilateral relations with Beijing. No wonder then, Duterte decided to meet the Chinese ambassador soon after the elections. To strengthen his diplomatic capital, Duterte has astutely utilized entertaining bravado to gain the trust of his countrymen.

But this doesn’t mean that the Philippines’ incoming president, a self-described “socialist” with historical ties to Filipino communists, is keen on severing ties with key allies like the United States, which enjoys deep influence within the Filipino military-media-intelligentsia complex. In fact, President Obama was the first head of state to reach out to and congratulate the incoming Filipino president, who has vowed to respect the existing defense agreements between Manila and Washington.

Yet, unlike the Aquino administration, which has been an over-enthusiastic supporter of the U.S. pivot to Asia, Duterte has expressed reservations and misgivings vis-à-vis Washington, and could prove more circumspect in granting American troops expanded access to Philippine bases under the newly-approved Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.

Nonetheless, Duterte’s checkered human rights record, and often undemocratic rhetoric, could at times prove testy for Philippine-U.S. relations. Duterte’s biggest challenge, however, lies not in foreign and defense policy, which will be handled by seasoned officials with ties to previous Arroyo and Ramos administrations, but instead in domestic affairs, where he is expected to honor his astonishing campaign promises before an impatient public. He also faces a skeptical opposition among the civil society and the outgoing administration, which has described him as a dictator-in-the-making. Undoubtedly, the Philippines has entered a new era of uncertainty.