Duterte, a New Bromance, and the Global Order

Kent Boydston (PIIE)



This week we’ve seen the beginning of what may become a major power shift in Asia. Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte announced his country’s economic and military “separation” from the United States while on a visit to Beijing where he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. According to Bloomberg, Duterte’s budding bromance with Xi reaped $24 billion in funding deals. Not bad for a first bro-date.

Later in the week Duterte took his charm offensive to Japan where he called Japan a “long-standing friend and ally” and assured Prime Minster Abe that when it comes to China “all there was, was economics,” invoking the classic “it’s not cheating if it’s only economics” defense. To make sure the message about the United States was not muddied, Duterte doubled down by saying he wanted to halt US-Philippine military exercises and rid his country of US troops within two years, reneging on a 2014 deal that allowed US military access to the Philippines again in the wake of tensions in the South China Sea. Given yet another opportunity to clarify the future of the alliance—which several cabinet members desperately tried to do—Duterte told the U.S. to “forget the bilateral defense deal if he stayed in power long enough.”  And in one of the more remarkable utterances, Duterte seemed to propose a new axis with Putin as well as Xi, saying “there are three of us against the world — China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.”

Duterte’s animus appears to stem from American and European condemnation of the human rights abuses stemming from his “war on drugs.” Prior to the China visit, he literally told the European Union “f**k you” and called President Obama a “son of a b*tch.” But the criticism is clearly warranted. Amnesty International estimates 3,500 extrajudicial killings in the 100 or so days since Duterte was inaugurated.

Is there a North Korea angle? We expect that North Korean diplomats are working at chollima pace to take advantage of an emerging anti-US, anti-global order potential partner in Asia. Since UNSCR 2270 was passed in March, and before Duterte’s inauguration, the Philippines has interdicted at least two North Korean ships. Surely, the North Koreans would be happy if the Philippines looked the other way. The Philippines was also the crime scene of North Korea’s $81 million cyber-heist of the Central Bank of Bangladesh. Duterte has purportedly pledged that the money would be returned. But who knows? The opportunities for more malfeasance are obvious.

And this leads us to the natural question. If North Korea unexpectedly invaded the Philippines, who would win, if the U.S. and China declined to intervene? Believe it or not, someone is thinking about this issue. If you want to read a robust dialogue on the capabilities of the Armed Forces of the Philippines versus the Korean People’s Army, leave it up to people from the internet to deliver.  

Finally, bringing the U.S.-Philippines-Korea nexus full circle, last month former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea and Special Representative for North Korea Policy Sung Kim was confirmed by the Senate as the new U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines. Best of luck Ambassador Kim; you will clearly need it. 

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