Rodrigo Duterte seeks to find a niche between world superpowers by playing the middleman to North Korea and the Americans…and China. So will the Duterte détente work?
It has been nearly a year since Philippine populist president Rodrigo Duterte assumed control after a brash, confrontational campaign. He has acted swiftly on its promises, leading to the deaths of thousands of suspected drug traders and users in extrajudicial killings, but also to strong approval ratings.
His role in the world has been to stir up trouble mostly, whether by provoking condemnations abroad on his domestic drug war, or perhaps the shock and as-yet somewhat hopeful disbelief expressed globally as he claimed to have personally killed three suspected kidnappers while mayor of Davao in 1988.
Duterte’s strongest detractors have been in the West, from David Cameron, accused of inciting terrorism, to Barack Obama, whom he famously called a “son of a whore.”
What role could such a provocative, disruptive individual play in world politics? It is convenient that the current American president is nearly as controversial and certainly eager to prove his credentials, as Duterte.
President Trump has indicated he would be willing to work with Duterte on negotiations with North Korea after it was suggested by the Philippine leader that he could mediate between the enemies. Yet Trump’s concerns, which are mostly regarding North Korea in military terms, and economically focused towards China, are nowhere near the same as those of Mr. Duterte.
The America Pivot to Asia, the Filipinos…to China?
Duterte has worked extremely hard in his year in the presidency to reorient his country away from its longtime big-brother partner, and former colonizer in Washington.
Much as Obama sought to pivot to Asia in order to block China from doing so in its own neighborhood, Duterte has decided to extricate his country from the American orbit it has long been a part of, one which has amounted to subservience as he sees it.
As a new form of Cold War politics grips the world, by which the Russians seek to influence anyone they can against the US and the West, it has become clear that certain actors see a large potential from reorientation.
The United States, under orders from President Trump, pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership immediately following his inauguration. It would not have included the Philippines, however, the signal sent was clear enough to cover it as well – Trump is not interested in strengthening economic bonds with ASEAN, only military bonds. The trouble is that there is only a benefit in receiving American protection if a country feels threatened by China, and though there remains tension over the South China Sea, Mr. Duterte has indicated he seeks closer relations. He is clearly cognizant of the positive benefits to be reaped from increased trade with China right as it climbs the ladder to the top of the global economic pecking order.
The Philippines is an important economic partner for the US, but the real power Duterte holds is more to do with his stances towards China and North Korea itself.
Despite UN sanctions holding back free flows of trade between the countries, Duterte and his predecessors have been loath to impose any additional sanctions, and until recently, China had as well. Now it has stopped coal imports for the duration of 2017, limiting Kim Jung-un’s inflow of foreign cash and economic output.
This perfect storm of events works for Rodrigo Duterte, offering him a chance to step in and play the neutral party, right as Chinese relations deteriorate with North Korea, and in the face of an American partner who sees himself as brash and ambitious as Duterte.
So Will the Duterte Détente Work?
Even if Rodrigo Duterte is not the one to improve bilateral relations, both the US and North Korea would be somewhat indebted for any work to calm tensions done by the intermediary. This would prove a winning outcome for all three parties, with only China perhaps somewhat slighted.
Just as unilateral action by the US against Kim Jung-un (a belligerent first-strike on his nuclear facilities) would be seen as an affront to the Chinese due to its ignorance of their geopolitical importance and proximity, so too would any agreement reached without their participation.
The extreme importance of Chinese endorsement of any deal is not to be ignored and will be remembered by Washington, Seoul, and the United Nations – not to mention the Philippines.
Thus, no matter what the intentions on Duterte’s part, it remains unlikely he will be able to increase his regional clout beyond whatever Xi Jinping sees fit – and the idea of such determinations being made in Beijing, not Manila, is the very essence of what infuriates Duterte and his ilk.
It is certainly not his wish that his mediation if it occurs and is successful, be credited to China. Rodrigo Duterte does not wish to see American domination replaced by Chinese domination, and will likely settle for nothing less than a strong equilibrium between the two giants. As politics go, this will be difficult. Both the United States and China have very different designs.