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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