After a day of silence, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte finally did something in response to the Hague’s South China Ruling. The Jakarta Post reports:
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte asked former president Fidel V. Ramos on Thursday night to head the Philippines’ negotiation with China in the wake of an international court’s ruling recognizing the country’s maritime claims over the South China Sea.
Speaking at the testimonial dinner held in his honor at Club Filipino in Greenhills, San Juan City, the president reiterated that “war is not an option” in dealing with Beijing.
He said he would seek the advice of several individuals, among them Ramos, in determining the next step for the government.
Putting the former president in charge of Manila’s biggest foreign policy problem is an unusual move, but Duterte is an unusual man.
A few days ago, we pointed out that the effect of the ruling would, in many ways, pivot on Duterte’s response. By putting Ramos in charge, Duterte hands the South China Sea off to the man who led the Philippines on its present collision course with Beijing. But does that mean Duterte will stand up to Beijing? It’s hard to tell, and a big part of the reason is that Duterte is himself a mystery.
Duterte has been called a Filipino Donald Trump, but that undersells him. After all, Trump has never pushed anyone out of a flying helicopter or forced a tourist to swallow a cigarette butt. According to stories (perhaps circulated by the man himself), Duterte has done both. Trump threatens to sue journalists he doesn’t like; Duterte says he might kill them.
Duterte is often considered an outsider, and he has assembled a motley coalition of allies that includes Muslim insurgents, members of the LGBT community (who have few rights in this conservative majority-Catholic country), communists, and many members of the middle class who believe the police do not have crime under control. Duterte’s electoral coalition was smaller than the reformist vote, which was split by Grace Poe and Mar Roxas. Out of eighteen districts in the Philippines, Duterte won only three and fewer than one in four voters preferred him to Poe and Roxas. If there had been runoff elections, Duterte likely would have lost. Out of twenty-four Senate seats, Duterte’s party has only one.
Like many “outsider” candidates, Duterte has a long history in politics. His father was the mayor of Danao, a city on Cebu island. His cousin is the mayor of Cebu City. Duterte himself served as the mayor of Davao, a city of 1.5 million, for three separate stints. During two interval periods, Duterte’s daughter served as Mayor while her father “advised” her, first as a district representative and later as Vice Mayor. In Davao, Duterte was widely hailed for turning the “murder capital of the Philippines” into what tourism organisations now describe as “the most peaceful city in southeast Asia.”
As President, he’s promised to bring the same tough-on-crime policies countrywide. In Davao, he formed a vigilante death squad group which was widely considered responsible for the disappearance of over 700 individuals between 2005 and 2008. People ominously whisper he may be planning to use similar tactics as president. In a 2012 press conference, Mr Duterte offered a $120,000 reward for whoever could bring him the decapitated head of an alleged gang leader. He offered an extra $24,000 if the head could be brought in a bag of ice, “so it won’t smell so bad”. He has promised that his presidency, which is limited to a single term of six years, will be “bloody”.
On foreign policy, however, Duterte has almost no record of words or deeds. He has long used anti-American and anti-Australian rhetoric, and he once made people laugh (in a Catholic country) by saying Pope Francis’ mother is a whore. But that’s about it. Aside from suggesting on the campaign trail that he would be open to negotiating a deal with China, Duterte doesn’t seem to have many thoughts about foreign policy.
When a group of business leaders presented Duterte with an economic plan, he said he wasn’t an economist and so would defer to their expertise while focused his policy energy on fighting crime. Is that Duterte’s model for foreign policy too? Will he let Ramos and those who developed Manila’s China policy keep the country on its previous course? Time will tell.