We are never ever ever (well, probably not) getting back together
by Luis Gómez
Rodrigo Duterte isn’t just known for cool sunglasses and telling other world leaders to shove it: he’s also a fan of China. On October 20th, in a speech given during a Beijing economic forum, the Philippine President announced that his country was separating from the US. He also pledged to reopen talks with China regarding the South China Sea territorial disputes.
That this announcement occurred at an economic forum was no coincidence. The Philippine Trade Secretary mentioned at the same time that Chinese President Xi Jinping would be signing a $13.5 billion package of trade and financial deals at the time, while the President’s office stated that Xi had committed to over $9 billion in loans to the country.
Duterte has an international reputation for being kind of an asshole. He called President Obama a “son of a bitch,” which led to a meeting cancellation (¡escándolo!). He called the Pope a “son of a whore” which the Pope didn’t respond to because the Pope has better things to do. He’s made more than his fair share of sexist comments, demeaning sexual assault victims, drug addicts (and dealers), and is just generally kind of a turd sack.
The relationship between China and the Philippines has been complicated. In 2014, for example, the Philippines brought a case before The Hague regarding territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The Hague eventually ruled in the Philippine’s favor, arguing that China had no historical basis with which to claim the land it was claiming, to which China responded “lol okay” and kept building new islands on top of reefs. Oh, yeah, China is dumping literal boatloads of sand on top of shallow reefs and making new islands out of them with runways and missile defense systems. As one does.
The interesting part of this is the qualifications made after the initial “Honey I want a divorce” that Duterte just dropped on our plate without explanation after all the work we’ve put into this relationship WHY DON’T YOU LOVE US ANYMORE? COME ON, KAREN WE CAN WORK THIS OUT. The day after saying that he would separate the Philippines from the US, Duterte came back around and said he wasn’t severing ties with the US entirely. Duterte has still been light on the details of what exactly “separating” means. Obviously, it includes some level of economic support from China, given the trade deals recently signed. Duterte has indicated that his focus for separation is on a foreign policy level, and that he intends to align the Philippines’ international goals more closely with China’s.
From Duterte’s perspective, this move actually makes some sense. China flexing its muscles in the region has been anxiety-inducing for many leaders, and tacking closely to US foreign policy may, in some views, have lead countries like the Philippines on an inevitable collision course with China, which has a shitbillion people, lots of money, and a chip on their shoulder when it comes to things like other people’s territory, or human rights abuses during wartime. In order to keep that from happening, Duterte would have had to admit a significant amount of US aid, military or otherwise, or instead buddy up to Beijing and Definitely Probably Never Go To War EverTM.
The impact of this decision to distance from the US is a massive diplomatic blow. The Obama administration had been attempting a so-called Asian pivot since Hillary Clinton (yass) wrote an article in Foreign Policy outlining the administration’s goals to step up the US’ presence and activity in a region that had been detrimentally ignored over the ten years of Oh God The Middle East Is Burning foreign policy. And now that’s basically in the toilet. The President had hoped that by refocusing diplomatic time and money onto other Asia-Pacific nations, the US could get a better grasp on China’s rapidly encroaching power in the region.
So, where does the US go from here? Well, for one, it needs to figure out whether or not Duterte’s formally breaking the alliance between the US and the Philippines. It’s entirely possible that this is just another outburst and that his advisors or coalition will bring him back towards a more US-based foreign policy outlook at some point.
Then again, that’s a potentially naïve view of how this is working. It’s not common to announce that you now like China a lot more, in China, in front of the Chinese president and then walk that back a few days later. More likely, US foreign policy is going to have to contend with the possibility that other leaders will defect from its sphere of influence, and try to mitigate the power of China through other means. If China is allowed to continue its aggressive expansion in the South China Sea, the US will have a lot of work to do to ensure stability in the area. Maybe a fruit basket might help. Or some cool pants.