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Asia's Game of Thrones
Duterte’s China Trip Keeps Washington On Its Toes

As Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte travels to China this week, Obama administration officials and experts in Washington are debating just how serious his overture to Beijing is. The Guardian reports:

Speaking on the eve of Duterte’s visit to Beijing, the top US diplomat for east Asia, Daniel Russel, admitted Washington was still grappling with the policy implications of the Filipino leader’s “colourful” statements. 

Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, said it was too soon to judge whether Duterte’s mission represented the start of a new diplomatic era in which Manila switched its allegiances to Beijing or was simply an attempt to play the world’s two biggest economies off against each other.

“I’m not sure anybody is completely clear what is in Duterte’s mind,” she said.

Washington’s greatest fear (and Beijing’s greatest hope) is that Duterte will concede Manila’s claims in the South China Sea to Beijing, opening the door to a larger strategic pivot. Duterte recently claimed that “we can’t beat [China]” on the issue of Scarborough Shoal, which has been in dispute since 2012. This July, the Philippines decisively won an international hearing against China’s claims, but Duterte seems more interested in pursuing lucrative cooperation with China than rallying diplomatic pressure in favor of the Hague ruling.

Seeing an opportunity to weaken U.S. leverage in the region, China has launched a diplomatic charm offensive to court the Philippines. In contrast to the United States, Beijing has fully supported Duterte’s controversial anti-drug campaign. A Chinese billionaire is bankrolling a major rehab center in the Philippines, and the Chinese ambassador there recently announced that the two countries will sign a cooperation agreement on drug enforcement this week.

Such signs bode well for Chinese-Philippines cooperation, but it is too early to break out the champagne in Beijing. During his short time in power, Duterte has shown a penchant for unpredictable declarations and abrupt reversals. Duterte’s threat to “break up with America” may be music to Beijing’s ears, but such rhetoric has been downplayed by official government spokesmen. Manila’s outreach to Beijing may be a pragmatic calculation to lure Chinese investment into the Philippines. Duterte will be accompanied in China by a delegation of his country’s top business leaders, suggesting that economic considerations are at the top of his agenda.

Amid all the uncertainty, one thing is clear: Duterte’s unpredictability has thrown a monkey wrench into the best-laid plans of the Obama administration and its pivot to Asia. After this week’s trip to Beijing, we should know more clearly whether Washington should panic.

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  • Dhako

    I know in the Belt-way’s echo chamber, the best mind in the US’s Geo-political theoretical community, are forever on the learning curve, or at least are bit confused about other nation’s inherent interest, if it doesn’t aligned in perfect symmetry with that of Uncle Sam. But, if I were one of their numbers, I would really worry now. And I would worry, for the simple fact is that, Beijing will pull all the stops to ensure that the mere crack that is observable on the surface of the relationship between Uncle Sam and the Philippines should be turn into a gaping hole in which even a loaded six-tons-trailer should easily pass it through.

    Hence, you will see soon enough that the idea of using Philippines as the “spear”, or as the tipping-point of US’s pivot to East Asia (otherwise known as US’s strategy in containing China) will be at end in so far as the Philippines participation of this grand strategy is concern. But, don’t let me dissolution you in here. And you should proceed with the assumption that all is well in here. and even to boot, you should assume that the Philippines under Mr Rodrigo Duterte will soon enough be asking Washington as to when the US will start playing tough against China in and around Scarborough Shoal, in-order for the Philippines to involve herself with that high-seas game of chicken against China.

  • seattleoutcast

    I was speaking with a Phillipino and asked about Duterte. He pointed out that Duterte’s parents were Marxists. A lot of this makes sense now.

  • Blackbeard

    Under Obama the U.S. is clearly in decline and in retreat. In addition we have demonstrated a nasty penchant for betraying our friends and appeasing our enemies.

    Why would we be surprised that our former allies are seeking stronger partners.

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