Pivot to Asia
Duterte Says He’s Sorry

President Duterte may have apologized for calling President Obama a “son of a whore,” but the problems with U.S. strategy on China when it comes to the Philippines are about more than just a few off-color remarks. The Washington Post has an excellent backgrounder on the episode. “First,” writes Emily Rauhala for the Post:

…this is about the drug war, not Duterte’s language.

When Duterte was running for office, he promised an all-out war on drugs. What he has delivered is a war on suspected drug users, dealers and their families. An estimated 2,400 people have been killed in two months. […]

Duterte is not particularly interested in talking about human rights—he has said as much. Now, because he cursed out Obama’s mother, he doesn’t have to; instead of apologizing for overseeing executions, he can say sorry for his dirty mouth.

And second:

U.S.-Philippine ties are no sideshow.

Duterte may find it amusing to use an anti-gay slur to refer to the U.S. ambassador and to insult Obama’s mother, but his comments play to a potent strain of anti-U.S. sentiment—sentiment that could shift the balance of power in the South China Sea.

Nonetheless, there may be a workaround for handling this important ally and its unbalanced leader: Let Japan be the middleman. Andrew Browne writes for the WSJ:

Usefully for Washington, Mr. Duterte has a soft spot for Japan; Japanese businesses have poured investment into Davao. In Laos, Messrs. Abe and Duterte on Wednesday reached a deal for Japan to give the Philippines two patrol ships and lend it as many as five surveillance planes. Some analysts see Japan playing a bridging role between Washington and Manila.

The aforementioned human rights qualms in the United States and post-colonial resentment in the Philippines make it awkward for Washington and Manila to work together. To be sure, Filipinos also have bitter memories of the Japanese occupation during World War II, but it should nevertheless be easier for Japan to step in.

In Japan, some nationalists long for the day that their country can emerge from the U.S. shadow as an independent great power; for other Japanese, worries about China are a major preoccupation. There are plenty of Japanese, then, who would be happy to take a greater interest in the Philippines. If Abe can keep Duterte in the U.S. alliance bandwagon, so much the better.

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