Duterte’s Bad-Boy Act Changes Asian Views of the Philippines

Duterte's World Debut Marred by Obama Tirade
  • Debut on international stage marred by tirade against Obama
  • Philippine leader finishes week vowing to uphold sovereignty

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte stepped onto the world stage last week with the swagger of a bad-boy rock star. Despite a patchy debut, including a rebuff from the U.S. president, Duterte has shown no loss of appetite for confrontation.

Returning from his first international trip as president -- to Laos for a global summit and then to Indonesia -- Duterte called the head of the United Nations a “fool” and repeated his vow for his nation to chart an independent foreign policy. He also denounced U.S. military killings when the Philippines was an American colony and thanked China for “being generous to us." On Monday, he called for U.S. troops to leave the southern island of Mindanao.

While Duterte, 71, can say different things on different days -- in part because his nationalist outbursts help bolster his strongman image in the Philippines -- for now at least he seems to be moving away from close military ally the U.S. and toward main trading partner China, even though the countries have a long running territorial dispute. That has ramifications for geopolitics well beyond the Philippine archipelago.

One risk is that Duterte ends up making concessions to China in return for financial incentives, frittering away any advantage Manila gained from the international arbitration ruling in July that found China’s extensive claims over the South China Sea had no legal basis. That’s “a dangerous situation" for the U.S. and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, according to Malcolm Davis, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.

“Duterte is going to be a constant source of uncertainty and instability in terms of our understanding of the Philippines and where it is going,” he said.

Duterte’s trip got off to bad start before he’d even left the Philippines. He told reporters that if U.S. President Barack Obama questioned him about the drugs war that has seen almost 3,000 suspects killed since the end of June, “I will curse you in that forum.”

“I don’t care about him,” Duterte said. “The Philippines is not a vassal state,” he said. “We have long ceased to be a colony.”

When Obama consequently canceled their first one-on-one meeting set down for later that week, Duterte found himself on the defensive. He issued a statement on Sept. 6 expressing regret that his strong language had “come across as a personal attack."

The episode may have impacted the markets. On Sept. 7, overseas investors pulled the most money out of the Philippines in almost a year as local stocks tumbled 1.3 percent.

Perhaps to reassure both investors and fellow claimants to disputed areas in the South China Sea, Philippine officials attending the summit in Laos suddenly released photographs on Sept. 7 of Chinese ships gathered around Scarborough Shoal, a rocky outcrop seized by China from the Philippines in 2012.

Later that day, however, Duterte -- sporting a black-velvet suit -- was seen at the venue walking over and introducing himself to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang for the first time. “If you want to work on the side of peace, you shake the hand of the person right next to you,” Martin Andanar, Duterte’s communications secretary and former television news anchor, told reporters.

For an explainer on the Philippines under Duterte, click here

Shaking Hands

More important, Andanar said, was how much his boss was impressing his fellow Asian leaders, many of whom crowded around him to take selfies. The spokesman also announced that Duterte would be seated at that evening’s gala dinner between Obama and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

That statement turned out to be an embarrassing blunder. Duterte instead found himself sitting between Indonesia’s Joko Widodo and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Still, before the dinner, Duterte approached Obama to talk things over. "They were the last persons to leave the holding room," said Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay, insisting that relations with the U.S. were "firm, very strong."

Bearing Gifts

The tension appeared to take a toll on Duterte. On the morning of the final day, he canceled a meeting with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, skipped both the U.S.-Asean leaders summit and the India-Asean leaders summit, and was absent for the traditional leaders portrait.

Pressed by reporters, a frazzled-looking Andanar said that Duterte had a migraine. “It’s not regular, but when he is tired and he is always working,” the spokesman said. When Duterte finally arrived in the cavernous marble foyer of the National Convention Center looking pale and deflated, he was met by his protocol chief, who handed him an elegantly wrapped gift to pass onto Obama.

Back in the Philippines the story changed: “I purposely did not attend the bilateral meeting between the Asean and the U.S.,” Duterte said in a speech. “The reason is not that I am anti-West,” he said. “It is simply a matter of principle."

Missing was an explanation for why he missed the India-Asean summit that preceded the U.S.-Asean meeting, or why he sent Yasay to take his place for the leaders portrait.

Open for Business

Duterte’s performance in Laos received mixed reviews in the Philippines. One academic enthused that the “intelligently courageous” Duterte could become a regional statesman. Editorials in the Philippine Star and Daily Inquirer were more circumspect, noting that the meetings in Laos had been overshadowed by the Obama spat.

Asked on Friday if Duterte’s behavior had impacted the Philippine economy, central bank Deputy Governor Diwa Guinigundo told reporters in Manila that the president’s more colorful rhetoric wouldn’t make a difference as "long as the economy is doing well, and it’s expected to continue doing well.”

It’s a bet that Duterte clearly intends to keep on taking.

Stopping in Jakarta on Friday on his way home to the Philippines, Duterte was back to his former self. In a speech, he blamed media spin for the story about him cursing Obama, and later branded the UN’s Bana fool for trying to raise concerns about human rights violations.

“Hopefully he has learned a lesson in terms of the whole Obama name calling thing," said ASPI’s Davis said of Duterte. “But I am sure there will be something else that he’ll do that we see as irrational and cause for concern.”

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