Political scientist Richard Heydarian assesses Duterte, his US remarks and South China Sea

Recently, President Rodrigo Duterte has been making strange diplomatic moves, particularly with his apparent cozying up with Beijing while seemingly veering away from the US, the Philippines’ traditional ally for ages. In fact, his first state visit as president of the Philippines is to Beijing, from October 18 to 21, instead of the traditional state visit to the US as his predecessors had done.

Especially on the issue of the South China Sea where China has infringed upon territories belonging to the Philippines, Duterte seems too friendly to Beijing on the matter instead of assuming a more aggressive legal stance and taking full advantage of the July 12 ruling of an international tribunal, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, decided the issue in favor of the Philippines.

What observers had anticipated was for Duterte to rally support from super-power allies like the US and Japan, plus other neighboring countries, to pressure China into respecting the international tribunal ruling using the arbitration outcome. But as it has turned out, Duterte seemed to have trashed the ruling and preferred treating the issue as a bilateral thing solely as a matter between PH and China.

On the other hand, Duterte seems to do nothing with the US but lash out against it, offend its president during the recent ASEAN summit, and even show nonchalance if US investments should pull out of the country. He even called for the pullout of American forces from Mindanao. In some of his interviews, observers noted how he sounded more favorable to China than to the US.

With all these recent developments, observers and critics are wondering what the Duterte psyche really is. Where is Duterte leading the nation? Are we eventually going to be a close ally of China (and later even of Russia) instead of the US, even later severing our ties with the latter? If so, it would be a major shift of diplomatic ties not just for the Philippines but the entire Asia-Pacific region, says Richard Javad Heydarian, author of the book, Asia’s New Battlefield: The USA, China, and the Struggle for the Western Pacific, and political scientist at De La Salle University in Manila.

Here are excerpts from Quartz’s interview with him:

If PH had another president instead of Duterte, how would our claim to the West Philippine Sea have turned out so far?

Heydarian said that if either Aquino or Mar Roxas were in power, he believed the Philippines would take what he called the Nicaraguan option. “I’m looking at the precedence of Nicaragua vs. the US in the 1980s, where the US, similar to China, boycotted the whole arbitration case at the International Court of Justice and then rejected the unfavorable outcome. Then Nicaragua went every single year to the UN in different international fora, embarrassing the US, calling it a bully, and trying to mobilize the international community to force the US to comply with it. Eventually the US complied in an indirect, partial way.”

He added that the Philippines should have denounced China in every way possible that would catch international attention—like in the ASEAN, G-7 and G-20 summits, and the UN General Assembly. “Of course China could turn it down right and left, but the accumulative impact would have been huge for China.”

In fact, according to Heydarian, it was the very thing China dreaded—that PH would take this very offensive and aggressive diplomatic option.

“The Philippines could have called on other countries to join it in a class suit,” the De La Salle political scientist said, “like legal warfare (or warfare on the legal front), and also use arbitration to give a legal pretext for the United States, Japan Self-Defense Forces, the Royal Australian Navy to conduct more aggressive and sustained so-called freedom-of-navigation operations close to artificially created islands in the Spratly chain of islands.”

Unfortunately, Duterte dismissed all these options. To Heydarian’s mind, “Duterte very clearly said, ‘This is a purely bilateral issue. It’s between the Philippines and China, I’m not going to raise it in any international forum, including the ASEAN.’”

How would Duterte’s tirade against the US turn out?

Heydarian said Duterte’s seeming hostility against the US in favor of China caught many countries by surprise, as if Dutere was saying: “I don’t want to be with the US. I want to join the Chinese and Russians,” said Heydarian.

“Even if this is so far just pure rhetoric, if not bluster, it has had huge short-term impact,” Heydarian claimed.

“The most immediate (impact) was that Duterte  single-handedly undermined America’s plans of using the legal warfare as a pretext to step up its military footprint, along with France, to constrain China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea,” Heydarian noted.

He added that US President Barack Obama wanted to use the arbitration result that favored the Philippines to rally the international community against China and pressure it to comply. But due to Duterte’s 180-degree shift on the matter, Obama looked isolated in the recent ASEAN summit.

Heydarian claimed that some EU officials told him: “Why should we take the hardline position when the very country that initiated the case is suddenly sounding completely different?”


So, what would Duterte’s relationship with the US become after this?

The perception is that Duterte might become another Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and bolt out of its alliance with the US to join China and Russia, said Heydarian. But nothing like that is going to happen, he assured. Instead, it would be something like what Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey did. When criticized by the US and EU, he would flirt with China and Russia. But in the end, he still maintained his alliance with the former.

“I think Duterte may tinker here and there with existing agreements with the US,” Heydarian opined, “particularly those exercises in the South China Sea that are a sore in the eye of the Chinese. In exchange for that, [Duterte might] ask the Chinese to give us concessions in the Scarborough Shoal, in terms of fishery access, and some sort of a non-aggression pact, whereby the Chinese will give us assurances that they will not impose or implement an ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) or any kind of exclusion zone within areas where we have personnel and territory.”

What does Beijing think of Duterte?

The Chinese are probably having second thoughts about Duterte, the De La Salle author said. He seems to be wooing them today but what about tomorrow?

“Duterte’s such a mercurial person that there’s no assurance that later on he will not turn on China, for whatever reason. He may be powerful, he may be determined, but it’s hard to predict him,” he said.

Secondly, Beijing may be wondering how long Duterte would last. “There’s no guarantee that Duterte can last long in power if he continues to do what he’s doing, which is alienating all the important external and domestic variables and forces. So I think the Chinese will think twice before making any huge agreement with him because the sustainability of that agreement is under question,” Heydarian said.

What if China doesn’t give in to Duterte’s wishes?

If China should decline Duterte’s big wishes, he may still get some concessions, according to Heydarian. “What could happen is some sort of provisional agreement whereby China is the factor in control, but gives the Filipinos access—Philippine fisherman access—to the Scarborough Shoal here and there. If they don’t give Duterte anything, then Duterte will not be able to sell any agreement with China.”

Heydarian also cautioned Duterte on putting all his eggs in one basket—China—given that majority of Filipinos is pro-American. “Duterte is popular, but so is the United States. The US had a 92% approval rating last year. So maybe Duterte now can pull off this diplomatic flirtation with China, but if the Chinese don’t give him anything within a year or so, then Duterte will have no choice but to pivot back to the United States.”

Does his defiance of the US make Duterte look stronger? How about his kowtowing China?

Heydarian said Duterte’s strongman image may be attributed to several factors. “It’s hard to say where his popularity is coming from. Is it his war on drugs? Is it his standing up tough to the US? It could be a combination of factors,” he assessed. But one thing is for sure, Heydarian pointed out: It’s more about his being the new president of the country.

“I think it’s most of all because it’s his honeymoon period—it’s as simple as that. If you look at his approval ratings, it’s almost exactly the same as the approval ratings of three or four of his predecessors at this stage in their careers,” Heydarian said.

“[However] if the US begins to downgrade development aid and military aid, and makes visa applications for Filipinos harder, that’s when Duterte’s going to lose support. Once they get hurt in the purse or in terms of their entry to [or travel to] the US, then they’re going to speak out: “Ok, maybe the president was foolish.”

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