Monday, October 24, 2016

Rodrigo Duterte has turned the tables in the Asia-Pacific. Now China is winning

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte arrives in Beijing for a four-day state visit to improve ties with its Asian neighbour.  In return, the Philippines president announced his country's "separation" from the US.

It's the latest shock from the vigilante president, Rodrigo Duterte, nicknamed "Duterte Harry" after the Clint Eastwood killer cop, a leader who has compared himself to Adolf Hitler for his willingness to kill millions of his own citizens in cracking down on crime.

"The Philippines and the US have been so tight for so long that the possibility of estrangement is hugely significant for both countries," says an ANU expert on South-East Asia, Nicholas Farrelly. And not only those two.

"Australia and the Philippines have been very comfortable partners over a few generations and there's the possibility now that this will need to be renegotiated."

Not only that, on the face of it the abrupt declaration is a serious shift in the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific. The President of the longest-standing US ally in Asia, after abusing Barack Obama as a "son of a whore", is now advertising himself as a client of China's:

"America has lost now. I have realigned myself in your ideological flow," he told his Chinese hosts during a visit to Beijing last week. "And maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world — China, Philippines and Russia."

As if offering to abandon a 65-year alliance with the US in favour of China were not enough, Duterte, nicknamed Asia's Donald Trump, tried to ingratiate himself by emphasising that he had a Chinese grandfather. Reeling him in like a fish, China's President Xi Jinping embraced him and said they were "blood brothers".

Duterte said he wouldn't travel to the US any more: "I would only be insulted there." The US has objected to his policy endorsing extrajudicial killings of anyone suspected of selling or using drugs. In the four months of his presidency, more than 3000 people have been killed by police or by vigilantes.

Police officers have told reporters that plainclothes police-sponsored death squads can kill civilians with impunity but they take care to label the corpses "drug pusher" or "drug user" to make sure there will be no investigation.

China, on the contrary, supports his program and has offered funding for a drug rehabilitation clinic for those addicts who, under the Duterte policy, submit themselves rather than risk summary murder.

"There are three of us against the world — China, Philippines and Russia."

Comparing himself to Hitler, Duterte said that Hitler had killed millions of Jews. "There are 3 million drug addicts. I'd be happy to slaughter them."

He later apologised for the comparison but not for the policy, which was the centrepiece of his election campaign and is key to his approval rating, which still sits at about 70per cent.

But the dramatic realignment of Filipino foreign policy is about something much bigger than Duterte's drugs policy, as ugly as that may be: "It seems to me that Duterte is arguably the first East Asian allied leader to act on perceptions that are usually only discussed in the region — that China is the emerging dominant power in East Asia that is replacing the declining power of the US," says a former Asia expert at the US Congressional Research Service, Larry Niksch, writing in the Nelson Report.

"The 117-year American experiment of nation-building in the Philippines may be coming to an end."

If Duterte's turn to China is carried through, it would be a profound advance in Beijing's campaign to assert dominance over the Western Pacific, to supplant the US, and to create Xi's so-called "Community of Common Destiny" in the region. A shared destiny but with a single author.

And it would be a dramatic blow to US credibility, to the Asia "pivot" of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and to the US alliance system as a whole.

Exactly at the time that Donald Trump has been disparaging US alliances as an obsolete luxury that America can no longer afford.

The Philippines had been the country of South-East Asia that inflicted the greatest damage on China's credibility in its claims to ownership of the South China Sea.

It was the Philippines under previous president Benigno Aquino that brought the successful legal challenge in The Hague to China's claim.

The international arbitration found that there was "no legal basis" to China's grab for territory also claimed by four other countries, including the Philippines.

But now, with Manila and Beijing saying they will find a new mechanism for a bilateral solution to the dispute, this point of stubborn defiance of China seems to be becoming a point of acquiescence. From regional guard dog to lap dog in a moment.

And on a very practical detail, it's unclear what will become of US access to the five Philippines military bases it currently uses to deploy through the region.

Unless, as Nicholas Farrelly suggests, Duterte's turn isn't as complete as it seems, and is part of a longer-run power play: "He may play this through into some other negotiation with the US to keep them in the picture."

He has certainly raised the stakes. And while $US24 billion is a scant sum to pay for an entire country, it's still a lot more than the Americans paid for it. After defeating Spain in battle, the US bought the Philippines from the Spanish in 1898 for $US20 million. Even adjusting for inflation, that's only about half a billion in today's money.

With regional hegemony once more in play, the great powers are jousting for the loyalties of the small. And, on the evidence to date in this case, China is winning.

Peter Hartcher is international editor. Illustration: Dionne Gain  

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