Duterte plays poker
22 Sep 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Aaron Brown.

The Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte’s erratic foreign and defence policy is lurching from one foreign policy crisis to the next. There’s deepening concern about extrajudicial killings that are piling bodies up and tarnishing the Philippines’ human rights reputation. And Duterte (who likes to be known as ‘The Punisher’ and ‘Duterte Harry’) is now courting China and Russia while apparently turning his back on the Philippines’ most important ally, the United States. In recent days he’s announced a decision to purchase arms from China and Russia, called for the removal of US Special Forces confronting Islamist rebel groups in Mindanao and declared that joint Philippines Navy patrols with the United States in the South China Sea will cease. That’s just a week in the life of Duterte.

Duterte’s bizarre statements and behaviour suggest a leader well out of his depth. Duterte seems to understand leadership as simply ‘acting tough’, which translates to knee-jerk policies with little thought for the consequences. His desire for an independent foreign policy might be driven by the prospect of immediate economic inducements and, with a visit to Beijing planned for 2016, a window of opportunity is opening for China to exploit that desire.

If Duterte’s playing poker and putting chips down with his most recent announcements, the problem’s that China will be willing to raise his bet. They hold all the cards in terms of potential economic assistance to buy the Philippines’ government acquiescence over the Spratly Islands and, more broadly, to induce Manila to sacrifice its relationship with the US.

In contrast, the American hand is weak. It’s inwardly focused as a tight US presidential election nears. Even though the US has sent strong signals with military deployments around the periphery of the South China Sea, a lame-duck President Obama and a lame-duck Congress may be unwilling or unable to act strongly in the event of a challenge, particularly as the presidential election looms.

There’s also uncertainty over the next administration. China may face Hillary Clinton, with a firm ‘lead from the front’ foreign policy likely to be stymied by a hostile Congress and lukewarm popular support for military intervention. Or it could face a completely unpredictable Donald Trump, who’s regularly threatening trade wars against Beijing. Both candidates look set to back down from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and so weaken US economic influence in Asia. China’s alternative Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) would likely fill the void. In this environment China may perceive Washington’s ‘weak hand’ as suggesting Washington will fold rather than seeing or raising Beijing.

From Beijing’s perspective, exploiting Duterte’s vanity and ego may get him to ‘go all in’ on the promise of substantial economic largesse that can bring the Philippines greater prosperity, and immediate political benefit for himself. China can win by convincing Duterte to move towards an ‘independent’ foreign policy which in reality would mean greater Chinese influence over Manila. Effectively losing the Philippines would weaken the US Rebalance to Asia and strengthen China’s rise towards regional hegemon, by weakening or even eliminating a key ‘spoke’ in the US-led ‘hub and spokes’ Asia–Pacific security arrangements .

Duterte may feel there’s little the Philippines can do anyhow to protect its interests in the South China Sea, given the Philippines Defence Forces lack the means to respond if China decides to simply take territory. Focusing on internal problems—pervasive corruption, endemic drug-related crime, and terrorism and insurgency fuelled by Islamist radicalism in the Philippines southern islands—may deliver more immediate political benefits and reinforce his strong-man image.

Duterte might think that he can play China off against the US to gain concessions from Washington by holding out the prospect of band wagoning with Beijing. By getting the US and Chinese players to sweeten the pot by betting against each other, he waits to reap the benefits. That tactic could work if Duterte had a strong hand. The reality is the Philippines desperately needs greater US assistance now, not just to fight internal threats, but also to counter a rising and assertive China that seems poised to directly act against key Philippines interests in Scarborough Shoal and potentially Second Thomas Shoal. Duterte needs to maintain popular support, and that may be dented if he’s too willing to acquiesce to Beijing, bringing into play the potential opposition from the powerful Philippines’ Senate. The US will also likely pressure him to back down from a reckless course. There are clear off ramps before Duterte runs the Philippines off a cliff. The question is will he take them?

By seeking to open the door to Beijing, Duterte may be backing a bad play, hoping a bluff will deliver a win. But the chances are that Beijing is a better poker player, and that Duterte is setting himself up for a bust.