The Philippines fandango: some tricky steps ahead
16 May 2016|

Whoever finds herself as Foreign Minister after the 2 July federal election, she will need to adapt quickly to a new form of ‘dancing with the stars’. The election of Rodrigo ‘Digong’ Duterte as President of the Philippines will inject a new set of uncertainties into the bilateral relationship, the management of which will require some careful footwork.

The election of a populist is one thing. The arrival on the regional stage of mercurial tough guy with more than enough machismo for any seventy year old is another altogether. His penchant for dealing with criminals outside the justice system, the suggestion that he might grant himself—and presumably others—a Presidential pardon for past wrongdoing, and a general tendency towards bluster suggest a pretty freewheeling Presidential style. And his completely disgusting suggestion that he should have been at the head of the queue of rapists who killed the Australian missionary Jacqueline Hamill in his hometown of Davao in 1989 indicates a lack of substance exceeded only by his lack of style.

Now may be just the time when an Australian Foreign Minister is again going to be confronted with a choice between principle and pragmatism.

We have been there before, of course, and have generally chosen pragmatism (the maintenance of ‘good relations’ with the administration in question) over principle (a foreign policy that reflects Australian values and takes into account the principles that underpin a global rules-based system, and the interests of the people ruled by that administration).

The Whitlam government placed a clear premium on winning President Suharto’s favour, at the expense of the people of East Timor and the people of Indonesia whose prosperity was shackled by the Suharto kleptocracy. It stayed silent on the murder of the Balibo Five, as the five Australian journalists caught in East Timor became known, preferring instead to refrain from ‘embarrassing’ the Suharto government. That was pragmatism in action.

The Hawke government stayed silent on the extra-judicial petrus killings (penembakan misterius—mysterious shootings) between 1983 and 1985, when the Indonesian armed forces murdered thousands of Indonesian gang members.  It may have reduced the national crime rate, but it did nothing for the development of the rule of law in Indonesia. The Hawke government remained in policy paralysis in 1986, when the Suharto government put a freeze on official dealings with Australia as a result of the David Jenkins exposé of corruption and nepotism within Indonesia’s ruling elite. That also was pragmatism—of a kind—in action.

The Howard government, when faced with the accelerating crisis in East Timor in 1998–9, seemed welded onto pragmatism at first when it was evidently wary of upsetting President Habibie, only to find that principle had to triumph in the end. As the grip of the Indonesian armed forces on East Timor’s internal security was declining, the suffering of the East Timorese was increasing. An intervention mandated by the UN Security Council was inevitable. As Malcolm Fraser said to me when he was Prime Minister, the sooner a government comes to the moral high ground, the better it is. Morality may be the only high value card left in the hand.

Generally, Australia seems to be slow to arrive there.

So, what do we know about President Duterte? First, he doesn’t display much regard for the political, economic and administrative institutions of the Philippines, which aren’t so robust in any case. Second, he out-trumps Trump in his ability to flip-flop between opposing positions: at one moment, he wants to take China on in the South China Sea, and at the next he was wants to leave it to the US to shoulder the burden. The Strategist post by Malcolm Davis addressed this issue well. Third, the vitreous quality of his jaw suggests a brittleness in the face of criticism and disagreement and a heightened sensitivity to any form of questioning comment or challenge. Duterte’s response to the Australian ambassador’s totally appropriate but carefully nuanced Twitter comment on his rape remarks displays an extraordinary lack of emotional intelligence and diplomatic poise.

And what of the situation facing the Philippines over which Duterte is to preside? With an economy that’s more dependent on overseas remittances than any other Asian country, continuing structural problems, continuing irredentism in the southern Philippines, and national economic, security, legal and administrative institutions that are weak and easily manipulated by strongmen, there are few internal constraints on a rampant President. And given its strategic importance to the US, even a Clinton administration is unlikely to push for much moderation on Duterte’s part.

So the Australian Foreign Minister will need to choreograph a careful approach to a more unpredictable Philippines. It will be important to leave the megaphone in the cupboard, and to argue the case for principle within the broader ASEAN forum, employing a consistency of approach in multilateral forums both to legitimise and to authenticate responses to events in the bilateral relationship. Fortunately, both the potential Foreign Ministers have the skills to do this. Let’s hope that they are able to bring them into play.