(Photo: Wikimedia/Layman's Review)
“Who does he think he is? I am no American puppet. I am the president of a sovereign country and I am not answerable to anyone except the Filipino people. Son of a bitch, I will swear at you.”
Philippine President, Rodergio Duterte uttered these potentially historic words with his usual grace. Hopefully these statements will dissolve into obscurity, because if not, they represent a real, and terrible misjudgement from a man who, despite his domestic popularity, seems to have little grasp of the pragmatism required of foreign policy.
Duterte’s lack of restraint at home appears to have little consequence for his domestic popularity. He rose to power off the back of his extreme strongman stance, putting him in the same league as Putin when it comes to brash and delightfully archaic machismo. This approach was reflected in policies that resulted in widespread extrajudicial killings in the region, accompanied by a lifestyle of Harley riding and gun toting, earning him the nickname “The Punisher”.
Now it is clear that with such a huge democratic mandate, Duterte can be as petulant about sovereignty as he chooses. No one can force him to adopt a different domestic stance. However in an increasingly globalised world, all states are by some pressure or another, forced to conform at least in part, to particular norms. No one is immune to this pressure. Even the United States has blunted and regulated its foreign affairs since the fallout of Iraq. The invasion and the opening of Guantanamo Bay undermined the liberal, democratic credentials of the state and the international support the country once had, has floundered in the face of its own moral hypocrisy.
And sometimes for oil or the retention of global hegemony
The very sovereignty that Duterte wishes to wield unrestricted, may be in jeopardy if he cannot come to terms with the real limits that the concept has in international relations. The Philippines does not exist in a vacuum separate from other states, and its interaction with the rest of the world is regulated, whether it is via its neighbours in ASEAN, the US or China. The important question of how to wield sovereignty in a globalised world, is choosing the path by which you can maximise its utility, and that would certainly not be through an alliance with China.
Nonetheless, Duterte has hinted that he wishes to downgrade relations with the United States, and its perceived extraterritorial influence over the Philippines, for an alliance with China, with whom the Philippines are literally in a high-profile territorial dispute. This is akin to voluntarily moving to prison, to spite an overbearing roommate.
Map of the South China Sea (Photo: Wikimedia)
China’s modest claim
These moves are encapsulated in his often jarring rhetoric, which has included calling the US ambassador to the Philippines, Phillip Goldberg, “gay” and “a son of a whore”. But even more telling was his announcement that after this year, US-Philippine joint military exercises will no longer take place, accompanied by the extension of an olive branch to China during his term. According to Zhao Jianhua, the Chinese ambassador to Manila, “since President Duterte took office, China and Philippines have been engaging in friendly interactions, which have yielded a series of positive results,”.
Despite these impartial words of encouragement, its not clear yet if the results will be particularly positive for the Philippines too. It is extremely unlikely that China will drop its claim to the “nine-dashed line” that essentially covers the entirety of the South China Sea, and so it seems strange that in pursuit of sovereignty, Duterte would be happy to actually give some of it up.