Rodrigo Duterte has only been in office a few months in the Philippines but is giving Donald Trump a run for his money as the most bombastic and outrageous political figure on the global media stage. Just as a large percentage of Americans love Trump’s weekly offensive and absurd statements, a “huge” percentage of Filipinos love it when Duterte verbally sticks it to Obama, the UN, and even the Pope. Duterte inevitably ends up taking it all back of course (after the damage is done), but it sure feels good in the interim. Duterte’s popularity in the Philippines is an astonishing 91%. Filipinos must feel like it is they who are ‘sticking it’ to global powers, oligarchs, and the drug lords. Who wouldn’t want that feeling? Bravo.
The same is very much true in the U.S., where a significant percentage of the electorate are willing
to forgive (or perhaps reward?) Trump for his plethora of outrages against ‘the system’, Washington, career politicians, illegal immigrants, foreign countries, and the rest of ‘them’. A lot of Americans also want to feel like they are taking their country and streets back, and they don’t give a hoot who they offend or what anyone else thinks of us or anything else. Hooray! Doesn’t it feel just great?!
Sure. There is a flip side to feeling so good, however. Last week the Philippine Stock Exchange reached its lowest point since July, the result of uncertainty around the country’s path under the Duterte presidency. Local and foreign investors are pulling their money out of the country at a brisk pace. Part of the reason is the National State of Lawlessness that was declared by Duterte following this month’s bomb blast in his native Davao in the south, which, to be fair, is not an uncommon event. Bombs have been exploding in the restive south for many years and no nationwide state of emergency has been called. Duterte clearly saw this as an opportunity to tighten the screws even further, impose what is the equivalent of martial law, and bring back the ghost of Ferdinand Marcos – after being in power only two months. Hip hip…hooray?
Duterte is also now at the beginning of a process of potentially fundamentally altering the country’s post-war foreign policy – away from the U.S. and toward China, with which the Philippines has longstanding territorial disputes over the Scarborough Shoal and Mischief Reef (both in Philippine territorial waters) and sovereignty over the Spratly Islands. Ironically, this foul-mouthed bastion of nationalistic fervor and flag waving plans to remove U.S. troops from the country’s south, where they have been assisting the Philippine military for many years in combating a Muslim insurgency. Duterte blames the U.S. troops for inflaming tension with the Muslim population and has said the country will never have peace as long as they are there.
So, let me get this straight. China breaches the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone and takes control of its sovereign territory, and rather than ramp up the country’s diplomatic fight against China on the back of its recent huge legal win over China in the South China Sea dispute at The Hague, he instead is looking to embrace China, call the U.S. president and ambassador nasty names, and kick U.S. troops out of the country, in an attempt to whip up nationalism? That’s right. He is also (incredibly) apparently considering stopping joint patrols with the U.S. in the South China Sea, and purchasing future arms from China and Russia.
This bizarre scene — which is precisely contrary to common sense and decades of diplomatic history – has potentially significant implications for Asia’s international relations, and beyond. Duterte is at once appealing to brazen nationalistic impulses among the Philippine people while at the same time endangering its security and status. In the process, he is drinking China’s kool aid and walking straight into a trap, for China is masterful at re-setting new lines of acceptability in international affairs and redefining what is ‘reality’, according to its own unique view of the world. Can Duterte honestly believe that the Philippines will end up better off by essentially throwing away its victory at The Hague, declaring defeat, and ‘settling’ for the easy way out with China? Do the Philippine people realize what is happening right before their eyes? Is this what they thought they were going to get when they elected Duterte to the presidency?
The same may also be said about the possible election of Donald Trump as President in the U.S. Trump’s threat to potentially upset the post-war order in Europe by withdrawing troops and monetary support for those European nations who do not in the future carry their fair share of costs to maintain the NATO alliance threatens to erode U.S. security, as well as that of Europe. Trump’s supporters must also just love how that feels, sticking it to the smug, self-righteous, entitled Europeans. Like Trump, they are in the process of reducing international relations to a business transaction, with costs and benefits measured in dollars and cents, rather than in terms of security, stability, and order. If Trump and his supporters have their way, the U.S. will become ultra-isolationist, and the entire world will be seen as nothing more than competitors on the global economic stage.
Before the U.S. electorate takes America and the world down that dangerous path, they should consider just what the world would look like if they did. Europeans could come to resent the America it today reveres. Russia’s political and economic sphere of influence may well grow in the process, with some European nations preferring the company of Russia to the U.S. With all of Trump’s anti-Russian and Chinese rhetoric, a Cold War-esque alliance between the two nations would in all likelihood blossom — well beyond where it stands today. And Chinese and Russian influence throughout the world would likely expand by leaps and bounds, with country after country believing that America had lost its way – and that an American electorate that could have voted in a demagogue like Trump would surely not be worth allying themselves with.
Duterte is already doing his part to ensure that Chinese influence expands throughout Asia at an accelerated pace, in the mistaken belief that running into China’s arms must be preferable than a continued alliance with an America that remains unafraid to object to the human rights abuses he has unleashed in the Philippines and the highly offensive statements he has made against President Obama and Ambassador Goldberg. Duterte likes China precisely because Beijing will not object to these same issues, so that he can stroke his own ego in the process, just as Trump does. What a dangerous path these men with huge egos are taking their people, their region, and the world, so that they may continue to whip their supporters into a self-destructive frenzy.