Friday, May 13, 2016

3 Potential Ripples of the Duterte Phenomenon in Asia and the Pacific

The May 9, 2016 national elections in the Philippines that saw the rise of Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte to power drew the active participation of the electorate in the intense debates, thanks in large measure to social media. Exchanges were so passionate at all levels that relationships were strained even among families and friends. When Duterte was vocal to his displeasure to statements from foreign observers, some fear the country's relationship with other countries would be strained as well.

But first, who is Duterte and why is he popular?

Presumptive President Rodrigo Duterte
Photo taken from the video by Matt Wilkie

Many analysts agree that the so-called Duterte phenomenon has been brought about by the gnawing dissatisfaction among the Filipinos about the current administration, most specifically the Aquinos. In the past 30 years, two members of the Aquino clan have led the country -- Corazon "Cory" Aquino (1986 to 1992), the wife of Ninoy Aquino who was gunned down at the Manila International Airport in 1983, and Noynoy Aquino (2010-2016), their son.

Up to this day, not one of them brought to justice the mastermind of the assassination of Ninoy Aquino. Yet in between, Cory sued a popular columnist for libel. Noynoy on the other hand unseated Chief Justice Renato Corona. This has aroused suspicion that, perhaps, it wasn't Marcos after all who staged the assassination. Rather, it was someone else that the Aquinos do not want to divulge, a thought which makes Filipinos (me included) feel betrayed.

The former Governor of North Cotabato, Manny Pinol, who was also a former supporter or Noynoy, wrote a passionate letter to the President that outlines his dissatisfaction: broken promises, continuing corruption, lack of compassion, rise in criminality, poverty.

Then here comes Duterte, a man from Davao City, a city in the far south. Duterte is known for his iron fist on one hand and a compassionate heart on the other. He is known to be living a simple life in a simple home, even while serving as Mayor for more than two decades.

Click to enlarge

Yes, there are qualms about him. But his supporters would have none of the arguments against him. His record as a local chief executive is testimony to the value of his word, his hatred for corruption and criminality, his infectious compassion towards people and his sincere desire to lift people out of poverty.

With Duterte as President and Commander-in-Chief, the country is expecting a huge change in the way things are done in the Philippines: strict enforcement of laws and more transparent government on one hand; and, on the other, a compassionate government that provides immediate assistance to the poor in need, extends a hand of peace to insurgents and secessionists and helps criminals get back to the mainstream society.

But will Duterte play ball with international partners?

The paranoid among the observers think that Duterte might unnecessarily severe diplomatic ties with long-time partners because of his harsh language. I believe such paranoia is naiveté more than anything else.

For instance, it is highly unlikely that Australia would severe ties with the Philippines just because Duterte hit back at the Australian Ambassador to the Philippines Amanda Gorely, saying, "What's your problem, I gave your compatriot instant justice!" The thought is highly laughable.

But still, how likely will Duterte play with other players in the |international scene? Let's choose three countries at the moment: United States, China and Malaysia.

Take note: I do not claim to be an expert about Duterte nor in international affairs. I just happen to be a son of Mindanao too, with a short stint in the halls of power (see Items 1 and 7 in 10 Things About me). So, if you have a better or different understanding of Duterte and his most probable foreign policies, please feel free to type in your comments in this blog post.

United States of America

The USA would certainly find Duterte challenging. He's one guy they can't control. Duterte isn't the typical "Yes sir" Filipino. Far from it. He is his own man ... and he doesn't like US meddling in national and local affairs.

US Army soldiers train their Filipino counterparts.
Source: Breaking Defense website -

Duterte's attitude towards the US manifested well when, in 2002, a CIA operative carelessly let a bomb explode in his rented room at Evergen Hotel, injuring him. This agent was later spirited away from Davao City, angering Duterte who wanted to try that agent for violating sovereignty laws.

What infuriated Duterte further was his suspicion that, taking the bomb explosion incident involving a CIA as a clue, the US might had a hand in the bomb explosions in Davao just months after that.

Duterte however vows to honor the on-going Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the USA. The presence of the US forces in the Philippines is an asset he certainly can use to protect the sovereignty of the Philippines. It is an asset that he would rather not use though, or at least not yet. He'll most likely exploit all possible tracks that would avert any war.

Should war ensure, God forbid, Duterte would mobilize Filipino forces first, the best way he can, before accepting help from the USA. He would want a war led by Filipinos, not by Americans. That might make American decision makers not comfortable, but I would like to believe that is a track they would gladly respect.

So, the US can continue to use the Philippines as its foothold in Asia to protect its interests and mutual defense obligations in Asia and the Pacific. But US soldiers who commit crimes in Philippine soil could expect no compassion from Duterte. When a violator is spirited away again, the US can expect Duterte to raise hell.


Duterte's attitude towards China is clear: he does not want a war. He'd prepare for one, but he won't risk initiating one. With China's size, 14x that of the Philippines, that's not hard to understand. At this point, he's honoring EDCA with the USA, clearly as a deterrent. He also intends to revive the compulsory military training for males to augment government forces should the crisis with China goes out of control, a scenario he doesn't wish to happen.

The disputed islands in West Phlippine Sea
Source: BBC News -

Negotiations, would remain to be Duterte's main weapon of choice. While he maintains that he won't give up sovereignty, Duterte declares openness to bilateral talks with China, IF and when China drops its "indisputable sovereignty" claim.

Will China reciprocate? At this point in time, the answer appears to be "No". As pre-condition to bilateral talks, China continues to demand recognition of its "indisputable sovereignty" over the West Philippine Sea. That's a condition that does not sit well with Duterte.

That demand does not sit well with ASEAN either, nor with the international community, particularly, the United States and the European Union.

So, what can China expect from Duterte? A pragmatic and guarded response akin to the young and small David fighting Goliath with nothing but a slingshot. They can expect Duterte to do his homework on making sure this slingshot would be effective enough to stun and incapacitate Goliath, should that be necessary. But first, Duterte would attempt to sit with China, the Goliath, on friendly terms.

How exactly he'll do that, or whether he can, remains to be seen. But his resolve cannot be doubted.


Duterte's good relationship with Muslims in Mindanao is known to everyone. In fact, the Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), has expressed support to Duterte's presidential bid. After all, they would want to deal with someone from Mindanao in solving the Muslim insurgency.

Duterte wants the minority Muslims in Mindanao to completely feel that they belong to the country, while maintaining their own cultural and religious identity. This is one of the reasons why Duterte is advocating a federal form of government (something that I'm totally sold to as well). With him as President, coupled with popular support, he just might actually facilitate such transition.

But how does Malaysia factor in here?

Source: Rappler

Duterte has declared, probably as his "first foreign policy pronouncement" that the "Philippine Government must never abandon the Sultanate of Sulu and the people of the islands West of the country in their search for the recognition of their proprietary rights claim over Sabah."

That is a serious statement from a hard liner presumptive President who just won by a wide margin. Naturally, Malaysia should be concerned, much more than it did when the incumbent President Noynoy Aquino said the same thing.

Presently, the international community recognizes Sabah as part of Malaysia since 1963. The chronology of the claim by the Sultanate of Sulu however dates way before that year. The continuing payment of measly rent by Malaysia for Sabah since 1963 is perceived in the Philippines as a tacit recognition by Malaysia of that claim.

If Duterte would push this claim, what we can be certain at this point is that a military approach would be out of the question. He would use negotiation. This time however, Malaysia can expect a much less condescending negotiator at the other end of the table.

If handled well by both sides, this possible crisis within ASEAN can be contained well, especially in the light of the common struggle against China's expansionism right in the front yard of ASEAN.

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