Philippines U-turn towards China needs to be watched carefully: The Statesman columnist

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivers a message at the Davao International Airport in Davao city.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivers a message at the Davao International Airport in Davao city. PHOTO: REUTERS

(THE STATESMAN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - When Rodrigo Duterte took over as the President of Philippines on June 30 this year, attention was focused on China's belligerence in the South China Sea and the ensuing judicial case between Philippines and China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague.

On 12 July, the court ruled strongly in favour of the Philippines. It observed that China had "no historical rights" over the disputed Scarborough Shoal.

The wary neighbourhood sighed a collective relief at the verdict calling the Chinese bluff of the brazen "nine-dash-line" approach that even threatened the sovereignty of other countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Indonesia.

It seemed the famed "Pivot" approach - as propounded by Hillary Clinton in the seminal America's Pacific Century, with undertones of recognizing the emergence of a hegemonic China and therefore the need to contain the same - was finally playing out and taking shape with the strategic alignments in the region.

Except for the fact that Rodrigo Duterte was a maverick no one had anticipated.

His background betrays traits of his extreme unpredictability.

A self-confessed socialist in a very pious Catholic majority country, he had even cursed Pope Francis during the Pontiff's visit last year. He is selectively outspoken, populist and crass in language.

For a country that is statistically the most pro-American country in the world (89 per cent having confidence in Barack Obama in 2014) he has brazenly reneged the special US-Philippines equation that afforded a political-diplomatic-military shield as the most strategic "Non-NATO" ally of the US.

What is baffling is the preferred trajectory towards the traditional foe, China, in an unexpected drift that threatens to tilt the balance of power in the restive South China Sea.

The unexpected U-turn by the Philippines was crafted by President Rodrigo Duterte immediately after the International court's verdict, when he avoided his trademark triumphalist bluster and offered a conciliatory approach.

"War is not an option. So, what is the other side? Peaceful talk", to calm the angry shock-waves in Beijing. However, this understated sobriety was unusual for man who had earlier promised to jet-ski in the disputed waters and plant the Filipino flag on the Spratly Islands.

On the contrary, his bluster was wholeheartedly reserved towards the Western powers.

For a man who has claimed to have shot a fellow student in his youth, made despicable comments about a gang-rape victim (saying that he "should have been the first" to rape), bragged about his licentious and adulterous life, and has willy-nilly encouraged vigilante justice in his anti-drug drive (said to have claimed 1,400 alleged criminals, drug users and street children), his recent sobriquets of "The Punisher" by Time magazine or "Duterte Harry" in ode to his language has made international capitals sit up and take notice of the latest strongman who is scripting an uncharted course for the Philippines.

And it is a course that has strategic import for the rest of the world.

His angst is inexplicably targeted at the US, where he is packaging himself in Cold War theatrics and positing the accompanying "imperialism" of the US interest, military forces and stakes in his country.

From his infamous description of Barack Obama as, "a son of a whore", to his cavalier comparison of his anti-drug drive to Hitler likening the same -- "Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now, there are three million drug addicts. I'd be happy to slaughter them".

A shocked world watches the new realities in Manila. Beyond the crassness of his words is the implied strategic drift towards China.

To please the Chinese before his impending visit to Beijing, he has asked the US to withdraw its troops fighting the Islamist militants in the Philippines, has accused the CIA of trying to kill him, has declared that the ongoing US-Philippines military exercises on the Island of Luzon would be the last, and further threatened to withdraw from the United Nations, and instead, form an alternative multilateral equivalent with China and its vassal African nations.

Clearly, he is playing one international power against the other and thus far his approach is holding good on the domestic streets as he is seen as an assertive nationalist who does not shy away from calling a spade, a spade.

While the international bodies and human right groups are aghast at his anti-drug methods and the accompanying killings, he remains unmoved, "Do the lives of 10 of these criminals really matter? If I am the one facing all this grief, would 100 lives of these idiots mean anything to me?"

Despite the international shockwaves, his domestic popularity chart remains robust as ever. With the open pandering to the sub-conscious and latent "anti-imperialist" sentiments, the strongman bravado and tactics resonates with the populace. Even his shift from the Western group to the Chinese fold is attributed to practical pragmatism.

The contours of his new-fangled "independent foreign policy" envisage an active reach-out to both China and Russia. As Washington refused to sell arms to Manila, he is supposed to have reacted furiously and said, "Instead of helping us, the first to hit was the State Department. So you can go to hell, Mr. Obama, you can go to hell".

The Chinese are gleefully lapping up the providential turn of the tide and a red carpet awaits President Duterte at Beijing. A unprecedented quid pro quo is said to be in the offing.

The Philippines will play down the territorial claims on the disputed waters in exchange for mega-bucks from the Chinese in the decrepit and desperate Filipino infrastructure, soft-term loans and military aid as well as assistance for his anti-drug drive.

The traditional suspicion between the Chinese and the Filipinos is giving way to a new realm that threatens the traditional equation between the US and the Philippines.

Clearly, it is a U-turn and a gamble of unprecedented international ramifications with the Philippines falling for China's "cheque-book" diplomacy. Earlier, Maldives had gone the same way.

Further, the reassuring and gratifying silence of the Chinese towards strong arm tactics on domestic issues such as human rights, endears Duterte towards China.

However, the military in the Philippines has historical and strong ties with the US in terms of training, equipment and outlook. Therefore, a sudden political U-turn with the enemies of yesterday, suddenly becoming the best of friends of today, will not go down very smoothly.

The cultural integration of the US-Filipino connect and the accompanying sovereign-compromise vis-à-vis the Chinese will put on test the gamble of President Duterte.

For now, the strategic balance in the South China Sea and the Asian waters at large, will be monitored very carefully and the process of re-calibration is guaranteed as the situation unfolds.