Duterte set to unsettle Asean’s waters

Members of China’s People’s Liberation Army Marine Corps will waiting for Rodrigo Duterte’s next move. Source: Wikimedia


Oscar Wilde’s parable about a monk in the desert sprung to mind this week at the news that Filipino voters had selected the populist Rodrigo Duterte as president with less than 40 per cent of the vote.

To paraphrase Wilde, two devils are trying to persuade a monk to abandon his vocation with offers of wealth, power and sinful pleasures. Lucifer appears to see how they are getting on. “There’s no tempting him, Boss. He’s not interested in anything we offer him.”

Lucifer tells the understudies to leave it to him. He approaches the priest, whispers a few words in his ear and immediately the man breaks up his cross and strides off shouting blasphemous expletives.

The two juniors ask their master what he said. Lucifer replied: “Simple. I just told him his brother had been named bishop of Alexandria.”

And so, Duterte’s rivals would rather see an outsider win the presidency than step aside and let one of their Manila rivals consolidate the majority of non-Duterte votes.

The other candidates even ignored calls from their president to unite against Duterte.

The same unpleasant aspect of human nature explains why a few thousand troops working for Britain’s East India Company managed to conquer the entire Indian subcontinent.

President elect Duterte has threatened to replicate the vigilante death squads that define his years as mayor of Davao, but his stance on the South China Sea might cause the greatest international impact.

His election could destabilise Asean’s efforts to agree a united voice on Chinese advancement. Vietnam in particular, the other nation on the front line of the conflict, will look across the water at a deeply unreliable partner.

Where once Hanoi could deal with the staid President Benigno Aquino, now Vietnam’s understated communist leaders will have to coordinate with someone who threatened to send the US ambassador “a shit”.

“It’s with humility, extreme humility, that I accept this, the mandate of the people,” he said as the results came in.

Humility has not defined his campaign for the presidency while he threatened to kill suspected criminals, joked about the rape and murder of a missionary and promised to ride a jet ski to plant the Philippine flag on disputed islands held by China.

“I will go there on my own with a jet ski, bringing along with me a flag and a pole, and once I disembark, I will plant the flag on the runway and tell the Chinese authorities, ‘Kill me’,” he told a rally. He might just have been carried away in his desire to win a few nationalist votes as the nature of Duterte’s campaign makes it impossible to tell what policies he will adopt in office.

A minority of Filipinos find his brash comments and pledges to stamp out crime and corruption in just six months appealing. He claims to be ready to challenge the status quo and says he is willing to stand up for the downtrodden masses, while accumulating fortunes in hidden bank accounts.

Human Rights Watch calls him “the death-squad mayor” and he has promised a “bloody” presidency. He threatened to cut diplomatic ties with the US and Australia after their ambassadors tweeted objections to his recent gang rape joke. But his electoral triumph will be heard most loudly in Beijing.

“Foreign relations has been a major gap in Duterte’s published platform to date, and he and his team have yet to publicly define their approach to the South China Sea,” said Jay Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.

Beijing has built up islands in the resource-rich sea, adding civilian and military infrastructure to the outposts. Its expansion has included Philippine islands and brings it within miles of the archipelago’s mainland.

The outgoing Aquino took a hard line with Beijing, once comparing China to Nazi Germany, and relations suffered as a consequence.

Aquino moved to rebuild military cooperation with the United States, the former colonial masters. A defence deal signed this year allows the US military to build installations at five Philippine bases and naval vessels are docking at the former US base at Subic Bay.

American and Chinese ships and soldiers are now in close proximity, deepening the standoff and militarisation of the region.

It is still unknown how Duterte plans to jet ski his way around the issue.

In February, he caused surprise by suggesting he might be willing to soften Manila’s stance significantly, if Beijing was willing to pay.

He suggested that he would close his capacious mouth on the Chinese tipping concrete and installing air-defence missiles on Philippine territory in exchange for some swift Chinese railways.

“Build us a railway just like the one you built in Africa and let’s set aside disagreements for a while,” he said.

Duterte maybe failed to consider that China’s speedy trains are less easily replicated outside dictatorships, where residents are allowed to complain when their entire village is bulldozed.

It is hard to know what Duterte thinks as his excitable, often-contradictory proclamations on the campaign trail appear to have been fuelled by adrenaline rather than something more considered.

Duterte had appeared sceptical about Manila’s case with a UN tribunal, questioning the worth of a ruling that China has said it will not accept. “I have a similar position as China’s. I don’t believe in solving the conflict through an international tribunal,” the new president said.

He has even considered the possibility of joint exploration of the South China Sea’s oil and gas reserves. “If negotiations will be in still waters in one or two years, I will talk to the Chinese,” he said.

Whatever happens, Filipinos appear cursed to live through interesting times, as the Chinese would say.