If Trumpian Duterte Really Bandwagons with China, It won’t End Well


This is the English-language version of a story I just wrote for Newsweek Japan on Philippine President Duterte’s strange new flirtation with China.

The big question I suppose is whether Duterte actually follows through. He has already shown himself to be a ‘trumpian’ nutball character, talking about killing millions of drug-dealers and users while praising Hitler. Previous associates have claimed him to be erratic and difficult. Sound familiar?

And just as I figure Trump would not follow through on his outlandish promises, like stealing Iraq’s oil, or retrenching from Asia, because it would be too hard – fighting all the interest groups in Washington, Congress, DoD, and so on – so I figure Duterte may just be spouting off. When he collides with the reality that no one in Asia trusts China, that his own people don’t want to give up Scarborough Shoal, this his own military is terrified of cutting links with the US to line up with China, I imagine his ‘pivot’ to China will be hard to pull off.

But let’s say he does take the Phils out of the US Asian alliance network. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he comes to rue that decision. China has no allies; it has purely transactional relationships with places like N Korea, Pakistan, or Myanmar. Beijing would screw them over in a heartbeat if it was in its strategic interests. So I have little doubt that Beijing will come knocking again in the future, asking Manila to surrender all claims to the Spratlys too, or to ‘permit’ China to operate in its airspace. If you think a state run as a nasty authoritarian oligarchy at home, is suddenly going to be a liberal abroad, disappointment is coming.

The full essay follows the jump.


Earlier this year, the Philippines elected a new president, Rodrigo Duterte. He quickly became notorious for his outlandish rhetoric and policy suggestions, earning himself the moniker, the Donald Trump of southeast Asia. Among others, he has likened himself to Adolf Hitler (yes, really) and talked of using extreme force, if not state-sanctioned murder, against drug users and dealers. On foreign policy, he has suggested radical new changes in traditional Philippine strategy. Most importantly, he has suggested that the Philippines would accept China’s expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea.

This would be revolution, as the Philippines has traditionally tilted toward the US and its alliance network in the Pacific. The Philippines is a democracy, with a partially American cultural heritage. (The other major cultural root is Spanish, as the islands were colonized by Spain before it was annexed by the United States after the Spanish-American War.) It would be extraordinary for a state with such political and cultural ties to the West to bolt for China, a state with which it has no such similarities. The Philippines is also the state that brought the first and only formal international law complaint against China regarding the South China Sea. Curiously enough, the Philippines won that case almost completely at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague. The ruling, which was returned earlier this year before Duterte ascended to the presidency, found China’s expansive claims to be almost totally unjustified. This emboldened the previous Philippine administration and the Americans with whom it was working. In the wake of the ruling, the US expanded freedom of navigation operations in the area.

Bolting to China?

It is therefore quite surprising that Duterte has suddenly spoken of accepting China’s claims. This month he said, “We cannot win that…even if we get angry, we’ll just be putting on airs. We can’t beat (China).” It is of course correct that the Philippines would lose a one-to-one conflict with China, but the United States and Japan have been quietly supporting Manila’s efforts to push China back in South China Sea, as have other relevant players like Vietnam and Australia. It is not clear that the Philippines needed to make this move. Indeed the United States warned China earlier this year that it might face retaliation if it built military facilities on Scarborough Shoal, an island formation very close to the Philippines and claimed by it, but nonetheless controlled by China.

But Duterte is an erratic character and has openly spoken of breaking the alliance with the United States. And indeed, the US does have a checkered history with the Philippines. There has long been a justified strain of anti-American politics in the country. After the US defeated Spain in 1898, it picked up the Philippines as a colonial territory, despite America’s own anti-colonial heritage as break-away state from Great Britain. Naturally the Filipinos resented the new colonial power and sought independence, leading to the declaration of a Philippine Republic in 1899. This was defeated by the Americans in 1902 after a brutal US counter-insurgency campaign that seared itself into Philippine collective memory. Eventually the Philippines became independent after World War II, and its relationship with the US oscillated between anti-Americanism and fear of communism. When the latter collapsed, Manila quickly expelled US forces in 1991. But the relationship re-warmed in the wake of 9/11. Duterte is only the latest turn.

Resistance to Duterte’s Shift

Given this up-down history and Duterte’s own ‘Trumpian’ character, it is not yet clear just how much he means to tilt toward China. He may be channeling anti-Americanism for political support. He may be seeking to play a ‘China card’ against the Americans in order to play the US and China against each other in search of a better deal from both of them. Or Duterte may simply not hew to this course. A leader who speaks of killing millions of drug dealers and users and professes admiration for Hitler likely does not fully comprehend the consequences of his rhetoric. China may find that Duterte violates deals and is an unreliable partner, just as he seems now to the Americans.

It is also likely that Duterte will meet internal resistance to ‘bandwagoning’ with China. This would be such a shift of decades-old western-leaning Philippine grand strategy, that it will almost certainly met huge resistance both in and outside government. Almost everyone in Philippine society will resent the concession of Scarborough Shoal to China. Territory excites nationalism, and ceding it to a foreign bully – China simply snatched the Shoal in 2012 and unilaterally blocked Philippine access – all but guarantees a social backlash. Indeed there have already been protests. Liberals and diplomats are likely aghast at abandoning the values of liberal democracy that the American alliance network represents. The Philippines may be a developing state, but it can take pride in being known as an open democracy. That international identity will now be threatened if Manila is perceived as a Chinese ally, or worse, lackey.

Finally, defense officials almost certainly fear the consequences of US abandonment if Manila bolts to China. Duterte may indeed get a good deal now from China – trade pacts, development financing, Chinese investment, and so on – but in the future the Philippines will stand alone against Beijing should China make further demands (as it almost certainly will). The Philippine military must know that China has no allies (North Korea partially excepted) and no friends. China inspires fear and respect, but little empathy. China has relationships with states like North Korea and Pakistan, but these are not based on warm, fellow-feeling. They are completely strategic, and China would drop, or otherwise exploit, them immediately if that were in its interest. Respect for China does not mean anyone trusts it. This lack of strategic trust must be deeply unsettling to brass in Manila, and I anticipate massive bureaucratic resistance from the Philippine military should Duterte plunge ahead with this.

Strategic Triangle

While we wait for a formal proclamation from Presidents Duterte and Xi, it is worth noting the security implications of a Philippine cession of the Scarborough Shoal to Chinese control. The Shoal represents the eastern leg of what analysts are increasingly referring to as a ‘strategic triangle’ of Chinese control in the heart of the South China Sea. The northwestern leg of that triangle is the Paracel Islands, which lie southeast of Hainan Island. These are closest to China, making its maritime control claims the strongest, but Vietnam claims them as well. Vietnam and China have already tangled over unsolicited Chinese drilling in this area. The southern leg of this triangle is the Spratly Islands, off the west coast of Philippines.

Both the Spratlys and Scarborough are just 500 kms away from the Philippines, while 2000 kms from China. Hence this strategic triangle, if China solidified control of it, would project Chinese power deep into the South China Sea. The Chinese navy and air force would be able to operate all along the western coast of the Philippines, most of Vietnam’s coast, and near Malaysia. Singapore, which frequently hosts the US navy, would suddenly be much closer to Chinese striking power, and  the Karimata Strait, through which the Australian Navy transits into the South China Sea, would be easier to block. This scenario, in which China’s island possessions give it a maritime choke-hold on the region, is America’s greatest apprehension, and the Americans have conducted freedom of navigation and air patrols to reinforce the norm that the South China Sea is international waters.

China’s sharp denunciation of this year’s Hague ruling rejects the international character of the South China Sea. Its ‘Nine-Dash Line’ map claims control of the sea as far south as Malaysia. To deepen its claims, it has enlarged the islands, reefs, and shoals it controls in the strategic triangle. It has also built air and port facilities on these reclaimed spaces, with ground forces stationed on some of them too. Needless to say, China’s claims to these islands are not recognized by the surrounding littoral states, and in the case of the Scarborough Shoal, it is so close to the Philippines that the US threatened action against any Chinese facilities built on the reef. Hence the import of Duterte’s trip. If he concedes control of the Shoal to China, it would be all but impossible for the US to reject Chinese military construction there. This would allow Chinese power projection into the heart of the Philippines. Scarborough is only 355 kms from the Philippine capital.

What Next?

The South China Sea contention is important for east Asian democracies, including Japan. Five trillion dollars of cargo pass through the region every year. Nearly all of Japan’s (and South Korea and Taiwan’s) oil – purchases from the Persian Gulf – flow through that sea. Chinese control of this maritime space would allow it to hold east Asian democracies hostage over energy. This would obviously have a massive impact on Japan and others’ economies. And China need not shut down trade completely. It need only use its string of bases and ports to threaten Japan-bound shipping or perhaps halt such ships for a day or two on specious grounds like environmental or anti-terrorism concerns. The signal to Japan and others would be obvious: do not oppose China too much, or Beijing will threaten your energy and trade lifelines.

Duterte’s threatened defection to China makes this threatening scenario now very clear, which I believe will increasingly pull Japan, however reluctantly, into the region. This will be controversial at home and abroad. Domestically, Japan has a robust, admirable pacifist tradition. Overseas, there are regional concerns, strongest in Korea, about Japanese power projection. The last time the Japanese navy sailed around the South China Sea was the imperial period, which is bound to make Japanese freedom of navigation patrols controversial at first.

But I believe such patrols will ultimately be necessary and will occur, because the United States will not, nor should it, challenge China alone. America’s alliances with Japan, Korea, Australia, and others must ultimately be reciprocal: US partners must contribute on big issues, and no issue is bigger than the emergence of China as a possible Asian regional hegemon. If US allies hide behind the US instead, hoping Washington will deal with China, Americans will sour on the alliances and figures like Donald Trump will be more common. As the largest American ally in the region, this need to call to help will fall most heavily on Japan.

12 thoughts on “If Trumpian Duterte Really Bandwagons with China, It won’t End Well

  1. [i]”The South China Sea contention is important for east Asian democracies, including Japan. Five trillion dollars of cargo pass through the region every year. Nearly all of Japan’s (and South Korea and Taiwan’s) oil – purchases from the Persian Gulf – flow through that sea. Chinese control of this maritime space would allow it to hold east Asian democracies hostage over energy. This would obviously have a massive impact on Japan and others’ economies”[/i]

    Diverting all trade going through the SCS to Japan and South Korea through the Straits Of Lombok and east of the Philippines would only cost a few hundred million dollars extra, and take a few days longer.

    That’s not at all an existential threat.


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