Duterte the Game Changer

The Khmer Times, 27 October 2016

Domestic politics shape foreign policy. The personal values of political leaders do matter in the construction and reconstruction of foreign policy doctrine and strategy.
Gaining strong popular support from his war against drugs and corruption, Rodrigo Duterte won a landslide victory in the last general election in the Philippines.
Since then he has jolted the Asia-Pacific after he declared a military and economic “separation” from the United States during his four-day visit to Beijing last week.
Although he later clarified that “separation” did not mean severing ties with the US, his statement clearly implied that the Philippines is distancing itself from the US and leaning towards China.
Such an abrupt diplomatic and strategic shift significantly affects the geopolitical landscape in the Asia-Pacific. The Philippines has been the US’ closest ally in Southeast Asia after it gained independence in 1946.
The shift also undermines the US’ rebalancing or pivot strategy to Asia, which aims to maintain the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific.
From the Chinese point of view, the region would become more balanced and stable if the two US allies, the Philippines and Thailand, become more neutral and independent from the US.
The Philippines under the Benigno Aquino administration sought support from the US and Japan to counter-balance China in the South China Sea dispute, particularly after the Scarborough Shoal stand-off in 2012.
The Aquino administration also led the charge against China by bringing the case against China to The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in 2013, which resulted in the ruling that was largely in favor of the Philippines.
China and the Philippines were engaged in a fierce diplomatic battle after the PCA ruling. The Philippines took immense diplomatic efforts to mobilize international support to delegitimize China’s nine-dash-line claim in the South China Sea.
However, things have changed. Mr. Duterte disregarded the court ruling and resorted to bilateral dialogue with China, while shelving the territorial disputes.
After winning a bonanza from China with $24 billion in investment deals and loans, Mr. Duterte embarked on a three-day state visit to Japan early this week to further cement ties between the two countries, from an economic partnership to maritime security cooperation.
As the closest ally of the US in the Asia-Pacific, the strained relations between the Philippines and the US leaves Japan in an unsettled and delicate position.
Japan has strong interests in forging a closer partnership with the Philippines as well as with other Southeast Asian countries to secure a long-term Japanese presence and Japanese interests in the region.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has paid close attention to Southeast Asia. He managed to make five round trips to visit all 10 Asean member countries within one year after he assumed the premiership in December 2012.
As the largest trading partner, foreign investor and donor of the Philippines, Japan has weighty leverage over Mr. Duterte’s administration.
Japan has supported the enhancement of the defense capability of the Philippines. Japan agreed to provide the Philippines with up to five TC-90 training jets and to build and hand over patrol vessels to give a boost to the country’s maritime capacity.
Within the context of rising concern over the deteriorating ties between the Philippines and the US, Japan is expected to play a re-bridging role between Manila and Washington.
Japan, a middle and benign power, has a critical role to play in promoting regional strategic trust and cooperation.
The advantage for Japan is that it has gained political trust in the Philippines. Mr. Duterte has shown a positive gesture towards Japan and wishes to see Japan remain actively engaged in development and defense capacity building.
“The visit will be an opportunity for me to personally thank Japan for its preeminent and peerless role as the Philippines’ development partner,” Mr. Duterte said before departing for Japan.
He called the visit “a defining moment for a solid and strategic partnership” between the two countries. Building the partnership with Japan relies on “common aspirations and shared values of democracy, adherence to the rule of law and the peaceful settlement of disputes,” he added.
“I have declared that I will pursue an independent foreign policy. I want, maybe in the next two years, my country free of the presence of foreign military troops. I want them out,”he stated yesterday in Tokyo.
Although Mr. Duterte is emotional and unpredictable in foreign policy, he has quite a clear vision that under his leadership the Philippine aims to build economic alliances with all major Asian powers, especially China, Japan and South Korea.
He claims that the Philippines will pursue an independent foreign policy. Only time will tell.

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