Duterte: Manipulating his Alliances

By Marina Mangie

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly shown that he is not afraid of ruffling feathers when it comes to relationships with other nations. Duterte has threatened multiple times to break ties with the United States, leading China to come forward with concessions and deals, hoping to woo the island nation away from its allegiance with the United States.

He has since rescinded his threats, stating that the Philippines will be separating its foreign policy from the United States, but not severing ties, according to CNN. However, the longtime alliance with the U.S. military has some in Duterte’s camp questioning the decision. “Are we throwing away decades of military partnership, tactical proficiency, compatible weaponry, predictable logistics and soldier-to-soldier camaraderie just like that?” asked former president Fidel Ramos, who recently resigned from his position as Duterte’s envoy to China, according to The Washington Post.

The loss of Ramos is one of the first significant consequences that Duterte has faced as a result of his offensive behavior towards both the United States and the international community.

The Washington Post reported that the U.S. government is also beginning to take a more formal stand against the human rights violations associated with Duterte’s war on narcotics by refusing a sale of 26,000 assault rifles to the Philippine police.

The Philippine National Police basketball team and crew of the USS Connecticut submarine play a friendly basketball game in Olongapo City.

The Philippine National Police basketball team and crew of the USS Connecticut submarine play a friendly basketball game in Olongapo City.

Based on recent negotiations with the United States and China, however, Duterte has shown that he knows how to manipulate the situation in his favor. The New York Times reported that Duterte’s current strategy hails back to the Cold War, where the tactic of threatening to switch allegiances from the United States  to Russia, or from Russia to the United States was how many leaders of small countries got concessions from the superpowers.

In Duterte’s case, this means he negotiated with China to allow Filipino fishermen into a disputed area of the South China Sea, near a Chinese-controlled shoal that may contain a military base in the future. China also offered him $9 billion in low-interest loans for infrastructure and other projects in the Philippines, says The New York Times.

But he is still keeping the alliance with the U.S. government intact, so the Philippines continues to benefit from U.S. military protection. His threats to break ties allowed him to make headway with negotiations with China, but as soon as he got what he wanted, he backed down to maintain the relationship with the United States.

Duterte has done well for himself, as he maintains his image as the champion of the Philippines, focusing on increasing benefits domestically, but he has also lessened the pressure from the U.S. government regarding the extrajudicial killings and other abuses in his war on drugs, reports NPR.

What remains to be seen is how Duterte handles his balancing act back home. He still has high approval ratings, according to The Washington Post, but as Ramos’ defection demonstrates, he risks alienating his own cabinet. Ruffling the feathers of other nations can work to his advantage on the international stage, but he must tread carefully in the domestic political climate.

Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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