South-east Asia in the time of Rodrigo Duterte

The body language of the famously loose-tongued Philippines President was notably subdued as his host, Chinese President Xi Jinping, escorted him to an honour guard.

The words that followed their meeting, however, were classic unfiltered Rodrigo Duterte.

"I announce my separation from the United States, both in military but economics also," he said hours later. "America has lost it."

Mr Duterte's words come as no surprise. A bit of a left-leaner ideologically, he has been railing against the lone superpower, his nation's treaty ally, for months.

But the context is notable.

The startling statement was made on Thursday to a group of Chinese and Filipino businessmen after his meeting with President Xi, who presides over the world's largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity.

 

For good measure, Mr Duterte added some curses against President Barack Obama as well.

 

Incensed by Western, particularly American, criticism of his human rights record ever since he swore to clean up the drug scene in the Philippines (Beijing helpfully announced US$15 million (S$21 million) in support of his anti-drug programme), Mr Duterte may have just taken things to an extreme and taken the biggest gamble of his life.

For one thing, Philippine nationalism, once defined in terms of anti-Americanism until the US withdrew from Subic Bay and Clark Air Base in the 1990s, is these days reckoned in terms of anti-China sentiment because of Beijing's aggressive and unbending acts in the South China Sea.

Although Filipino industry and business, as with many nations in South-east Asia, is dominated by people of ethnic Chinese stock, the sentiments on the South China Sea issue are common across the board.

This contributed in large measure to the popularity of President Benigno Aquino III, Mr Duterte's predecessor.

The former mayor of Davao City clearly thinks his massive popularity - he has the second-highest ratings for his first 100 days in office since President Fidel Ramos - is backing enough for him to stand against the public sentiment where two in three Filipinos have a largely favourable view of the US versus 31 per cent who think poorly of the US and China.

Second, Mr Duterte, even as he announced his "separation" from the US in economics, does not seem to have taken into account a hard fact on the ground, which is that the boom his country has enjoyed in grabbing ever bigger slices of the outsourcing industry is on account of the Philippines' tight relationship with the West, particularly the US.

Manila now is considered to have displaced Mumbai, in India, as a favoured outsourcing destination.

Cities like Cebu in the Philippines have also come on the outsourcing map lately, as the world increasingly discovers the English-speaking talent resident in the archipelago.

Since Accenture set up the first outsourcing unit in the Philippines in 1992, outsourcing now employs nearly a million people and brings in more than US$16 billion in revenue.

Since the top clients are all Western multinationals, Mr Duterte may be putting at risk the fortunes of hundreds of thousands of young people should he move away from the US strategically.

There is also the question of remittances.

The Philippines, more than almost any other economy, is critically dependent on the US$30 billion in remittances it receives annually from the workers it sends overseas. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states dominate the pile of remittance sources, but the US follows closely. With oil prices having fallen, Gulf remittances are being hit.

Should the US, as a punitive measure, impose restrictions or a tax on remittances to the Philippines, there could be howls of protest from families across the nation that depend on these funds.

That said, there is no question that South-east Asia is in for a period of nervousness as Mr Duterte goes about attempting to realign his state's decades-long umbilical links with Washington.

Former president Ramos, at whose urging Mr Duterte ran for the presidency and is still widely influential in the Philippines, has cut away from his protege already.

The military is nervously watching as the new man at the helm orders an unravelling of long-tested strategic structures.

The next moves to watch would be not Mr Duterte's, but Mr Xi's.

At the very least, if he does not permit Filipino fishermen access to their traditional fishing grounds around Scarborough Shoal, it would prove a huge let-down for their new-found admirer in Asean, one that might prove politically lethal for him.

Returning control of the shoal to Manila, for now, seems out of the question despite the arbitral ruling in Manila's favour. That's because Beijing will be mindful of what might come should Mr Duterte abruptly leave the scene, or be removed. The Philippines, after all, has a long history of coups.

"I realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will go to Russia and talk to (President Vladimir) Putin and tell him there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia," his office yesterday quoted him as saying.

For many in the Philippines, this might seem like a flight of fancy.

Washington, too, cannot be expected to sit idly by as Mr Duterte seeks to alter the chessboard it has set up in South-east Asia and the Pacific.

It was Mrs Hillary Clinton after all, who, as secretary of state, stood on a US warship anchored in Manila Bay and first spoke of the South China Sea as the "West Philippine Sea".

South-east Asia, clearly, is headed for interesting times.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2016, with the headline 'S-E Asia in the time of Duterte'. Print Edition | Subscribe