Regional Implications of the Duterte Presidency
By Tetsuo Kotani/ 8 July 2016/ The Diplomat
What impact will the new president have on the U.S. alliance, the South China Sea, and Japan’s regional role?
Rodrigo Duterte was inaugurated as president of the Philippines on June 30. During the elections, Duterte displayed a tendency for courting controversy, with statements such as “Forget the laws of human rights” and “Kill all of them [criminals],” in the process earning comparisons with Donald Trump.
Anti-establishmentarianinsm and nationalism are two dominant global trends, apparent not only in the U.S. but in other parts of the world, as seen in the recent Brexit vote. Duterte’s election is part of these trends. The Philippine economy continues to enjoy strong growth, with annual growth of more than six percent. Yet the middle class accounts for little more than 10 percent of the total population, corruption is rampant, and public security remains poor. Voters clearly hoped that Duterte would take his success in improving security in Davao city – once considered the most dangerous city in the Philippines – and replicated it nationally.
Under a President Duterte, the foreign policy of the Philippines could also shift significantly. In regional security terms, interest will be centered on the new president’s approach to the South China Sea.
Over the past few years, China has called for dialogue and peaceful settlements to the South China Sea territorial disputes, while simultaneously making steady, incremental changes to the situation on the ground, by occupying the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal and building artificial islands in the Spratlys. In response, the previous Philippine government of Benigno Aquino abandoned talks and stepped up defense cooperation with Japan and the U.S., while instituting arbitral proceedings against China under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Will Duterte continue with this strategy, or will he abandon it? The question has considerable import for regional security.
The answer is unclear. Already the new president has hinted that he may prioritize economic interests and change policy on the South China Sea. Yet during the campaign, Duterte said that if China did not abide by the decision of the arbitral tribunal, he would ride a jet ski to the Scarborough Shoal and plant the Philippine flag. But he also suggested that he would shelve the South China Sea territorial issue if it meant receiving economic support from China. After his victory, Duterte stressed that he would not surrender the sovereign rights of the Philippines in the territorial dispute. But at a meeting with China’s ambassador to the Philippines, Zhao Jianhua, Duterte reportedly said that he wanted to improve relations. In fact, Duterte received an offer of cooperation from China, to help with the construction of a rail line intended to ease the chronic traffic congestion in Manila and said that he will send the new Transportation Secretary, Arthur Tugade, to Beijing. The new Foreign Affairs Secretary, Perfecto Yasay, Jr., also mentioned discussions with China Read more