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The 3-way link-up that just keeps on giving for Duterte

The Philippine President is doing fine courting both China and the US with his brand of small-town diplomacy - for now.

Is Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte a "puppet" of China? The short answer is "no". But it does seem like he's every bit the Sinophile.

At the end of the 30th Asean Summit in Manila on April 29, Mr Duterte released a statement, as Asean chair, that did not mention the islands China has built on seven reefs in the South China Sea to assert its claims to almost all of this vital waterway. He said it was a "non-issue".

Two days later, he gave three Chinese warships the red-carpet treatment in his home town, Davao City, an honour he has not bestowed on any other navy, not even Russia's. He boarded the destroyer Chang Chun and was very impressed with what he saw. "It's like a hotel in there," he enthused.

A couple of weeks ago, he cancelled a plan to visit Thitu island, the biggest of the nine land formations that the Philippines occupies in the South China Sea. He wanted to raise his nation's flag there to mark 119 years of Philippine independence on June 12. But Beijing warned him against it, so he said he would not go there any more "because of our friendship with China".

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On Sunday, Mr Duterte will be in Beijing to attend the "One Belt, One Road" (Obor) summit to build a new Silk Road. The trip comes after his state visit last October to Beijing, where he was welcomed with a 21-gun salute, and where he boldly declared a "separation" from the United States.

A LITTLE GIVE-AND-TAKE

So, is Mr Duterte kowtowing to China?

A handout photo made available by the Presidential Photographers Division shows Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during a tour of a Chinese naval ship in Davao City, southern Philippines. He gave three Chinese warships the red-carpet treatment in
A handout photo made available by the Presidential Photographers Division shows Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during a tour of a Chinese naval ship in Davao City, southern Philippines. He gave three Chinese warships the red-carpet treatment in his home town - an honour he has not bestowed on any other navy, not even Russia's. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Not really. He has taken from China, even as he gives. He has won concessions that Beijing would never have agreed to under his predecessor, Mr Benigno Aquino, who initiated the arbitration case that struck down China's South China Sea claims and plunged Philippine-Chinese ties to historic lows.

After about five years, Filipino fishermen are back at Scarborough Shoal, a contested atoll in the South China Sea. They are no longer being chased away with water cannon, bullhorns and guns by China's coast guard. They are now exchanging cigarettes and fish, instead of angry words, with the Chinese.

In a few weeks, the Philippine military will begin long-delayed construction works on Thitu. Navy engineers will soon be repaving the island's derelict runway, and building a new harbour, fish port and barracks there. China had, till now, been harassing supply runs to Thitu and the Philippines' other outposts in the South China Sea.

Mr Duterte, meanwhile, walked home with more than US$24 billion (S$33.7 billion) in investments and grants after his October state visit to China. He can expect to secure more for his ambitious US$100 billion infrastructure programme from the Obor summit.

THE MIDDLE GROUND

So, what do we make of Mr Duterte?

He is just being consistent. He thinks the Philippines has drifted too much towards the US, and a correction is long overdue. He wants to bring his nation closer to the centre, equidistant from Beijing and Washington.

Look closely, and you will see that while he has been very accommodating towards China, there has not been any fundamental shift in US-Philippine relations. He may have called America a "nation of hypocrites" and former president Barack Obama a "son of a bitch", and complained about the presence of American troops on Philippine soil, but he has not upended decades-long defence arrangements between the Philippines and the US.

This is why Washington is not losing any sleep over Mr Duterte. Not yet, at least. At the end of the day, it still holds all the cards, not China. It has a "mutual defence treaty", a "visiting forces agreement", and a defence agreement that allow it to station troops in the Philippines and have access to staging areas.

Not even Mr Duterte can unravel those arrangements, without risking a costly squabble with the Senate, where his hold is tenuous, or provoking a population that is still largely pro-American.

This is why there's this interplay where Mr Duterte will say something scathing or even outrageous about the Americans, and his defence chief and generals will come in soon after, either walking back what he has just said, or tempering it.

Mr Duterte, for instance, had previously said he wanted to end all military exercises with the US. A day later, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, a retired major-general who served later in his military career as the Philippines' defence attache to the US, explained that what Mr Duterte meant was to just scale down the exercises, and to move them farther away from the South China Sea. When Mr Duterte said days ago that the Chinese navy could hold joint exercises with the Philippine navy, Mr Lorenzana clarified hours later that these would require Senate approval - essentially shooting down such a prospect.

That Mr Duterte has not yet sacked Mr Lorenzana reflects just what exactly is on his mind.

THE BROMANCE CONTINUES

What you have in Mr Duterte is the pragmatism of a mayor adept at bargaining his way to higher ground. For more than three decades, he held sway over a city by knowing exactly when to come down hard and when to stand down, and when to dispense flattery to gain an ally, and when to sow fear to silence a foe.

That he has both US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping calling him on the phone to talk about the standoff on the Korean peninsula, where the Philippines has never played a major role, is a measure of the efficacy of that small-town brand of diplomacy.

Those calls, of course, are also meant to keep Mr Duterte in the middle, if not win him over entirely, which leads to the question: Just how long can he stay on the rope and keep up this tenuous balancing act?

Already, the rope is shaking.

Washington is again taking notice of the thousands of people killed, either in police drug raids and purges within drug gangs, or by vigilantes, since Mr Duterte took office on June 30 and began a brutal crackdown on narcotics.

Mr Patrick Murphy, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South-east Asia, said the US is troubled by these killings and called on Manila to stick to its commitment to investigate them.

Statements like these tend to provoke Mr Duterte, who has had a mouthful to say to anyone who has dared criticise his anti-crime drive: Mr Obama, the European Union, the United Nations, human rights groups, the Catholic Church.

A potential tipping point may be a case filed against him before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. If that succeeds, the US may have to take a tougher stand. That could push Mr Duterte all the way towards China's open arms.

But then again, there's Mr Trump. He has been carefully treading around Mr Duterte's war on drugs, and his order down the line seems to be to go easy on it, saying the Philippines is facing "a massive drug problem".

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave the human rights report about the Philippines little of the traditional attention or fanfare, and a White House statement acknowledged that Mr Duterte "is fighting very hard to rid his country of drugs".

So, for now, the three-way bromance seems to be holding, which works out just fine for Mr Duterte.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 10, 2017, with the headline 'The 3-way link-up that just keeps on giving for Duterte'. Print Edition | Subscribe