(This article has been edited to reflect that the Philippines has a single term presidency under its current constitution, meaning Duterte cannot serve, right now, beyond his elected six years).
Betteridge’s law of headlines states that any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered no. And so it is with this one, with a strong caveat: at least not now.
Since election in May, Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ “gotta make some murder to stop some murder” president, has grabbed up headlines by getting so tough on crime, crime is shot in the streets and by insulting the American president. Now, and most geopolitically significantly, Mr. Duterte has threatened to bring his country into alliances with China and Russia.
As much of a boon as this would be to the Chinese and Russians, neither can replace the Americans. At least, not right now.
First, just what does Duterte think he’s doing?
Rodrigo Duterte was elected with a “get tough on crime” platform in a collectivist society that prefers strong, decisive leadership. In such a place, a president can extol a social cleansing through violence, targeting those who threaten the collective. Drug dealers are marginal anywhere, but in an individualistic society like the U.S., killing them would horrify most Americans, who would see the violation of individual rights as immoral. In the Philippines, killing drug dealers doesn’t inspire such recoil; Filipinos presume it will never happen to them so long as they play by big society’s rules.
Which is where the Obama-Duterte spat began. President Obama see the extrajudicial killings as immoral and worth condemnation; Duterte and his supporters see them as necessary to preserve the body politic. It goes without saying that if Duterte can get away with killing Filipinos on a large scale, it strengthens and secures him politically. If he has ambitions to repeat the recent past and turn the country’s fledging democracy back to dictatorship, this is a sure path.
So there’s two factors here: doubtless, Duterte believes he’s doing a good thing to a society in desperate need of decisive leadership. It’s also self-serving, empowering him further, feeding his ambitions, and what politician is not ambitious?
But the influence of the United States upon the Philippines is vast. Switching sides might be a dream to anti-American rivals, but it will not be quick or easy.
First, why is Duterte suddenly courting the Chinese and Russians? In short, to make himself look strong at a time when he’s weak.
Duterte is a new president; while he is enjoying a political honeymoon, that won’t last. The only way to carry on his agenda is to appear strong: standing up to the U.S. is a cheap way to do so. Leaders like Duterte use selective historical memory to rile up nationalists and identity voters, who become powerful bases of support. As Duterte dredges up old U.S. war crimes from a century ago, he means to rally people who will see him as a movement rather than a politician.
This is the short term thinking of a would-be strongman. Duterte echoes a lot of authoritarians who have about-faced on former allies for domestic benefit. The list is full of famous names: Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was saved by American power in the ’56 Suez Crisis and then proceeded to bash the U.S. in public, Saddam Hussein, who was armed by the Americans and then invaded Kuwait, and Hugo Chavez, who never forgave the U.S. for a 2002 coup attempt.
But there is a key difference: all three had discernable ideologies that made them competitors to the United States. Duterte does not. All of this reeks of opportunism rather than genuine strategy.
That isn’t to say he won’t develop such an ideology: in a collectivist society that relies upon powerful, decisive leaders, nationalism, the very ideology that relies upon the subsummation of the individual to the nation beneath an all-powerful leader, can gain quick breath.
So first, why turning on the Americans too fast would be an economic disaster.
Best to admit the truth right off the bat: China is the biggest trade partner of the Philippines.
Some $34 billion in total trade in 2014 passes between the two. 24% of exports go to China; 17% of imports come from the People’s Republic.
Yet if we follow Duterte to his logical conclusion, of swapping out the Americans for the Russians and Chinese, that won’t matter, because those two combined cannot replace the U.S. and its allies.
The United States and Japan are numbers 3 and 2, respectively. $17 billion in trade travels between the U.S. and Philippines; Japan has another $18 billion. Combined these two balance the Chinese. Duterte might want to cut links with former conquerors, but to do so will be expensive in the extreme.
Moreover, Russian-Philippine trade is nearly non-existent. To build an economic bridge to Russia will mean having to craft trade deals that give massive, largely artificial incentives to force a relationship where there is none today. Neither country can really afford to do that. The only deals they can sign could be of symbolism rather than substance.
So Duterte faces a basic economic problem: should he try to wean his country off the United States, who does he replace it with? Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan all want and need American power: should pushes come to shoves, they would join the U.S. in bringing economic power to bear upon a Philippines gone rogue. Only a slow, determined policy could accomplish that goal, but even with discipline, it’s fraught with risks. Should anything slip, he could turn his country into the next Venezuela.
Second, to switch too fast would be a military disaster for the Filipinos.
The Filipino armed forces are entirely reliant upon the U.S. alliance system. The Filipino navy almost doesn’t exist: that’s a huge handicap for an island nation. The PLA-Navy isn’t able to replace the U.S. Navy – the Chinese navy is too small itself. The Russian Pacific fleet is a ghost of its Soviet self. So to ditch the American security alliance for anyone else on Earth will essentially mean giving up any way to protect the Philippines by sea. Forget war; without U.S. naval protection, piracy will run rampant throughout the many islands of the country.
Then there are the 200,000 odd troops the Filipino government has. These forces have never been seriously expected to stave off a Soviet or Chinese invasion; they were always placeholders until the Americans could arrive. Instead, successive Filipino governments used them as political patronage: a gigantic jobs-for-loyalty program. Filipinos themselves are clear on the matter: the military is not where one goes to defend the country but to plunder government coffers.
Corruption compounds a basic challenge: having been supplied by the U.S. since independence, switching gear will be both slow and expensive. It will mean parting with decades of training and experience for unfamiliar Chinese and Russian equipment. The more complicated the system, the more difficult that will be. Soldiers uninterested in hardship, as corrupt troops tend to be, are not likely to take kindly to being forced to use some other country’s equipment just so their president can score political points against the Americans. They will grumble; the Philippines is not so secure to prevent a coup, but even avoiding that, muttering soldiers will poison the political well against Duterte.
This presumes that such a military shake-up doesn’t inspire the many separatist movements of the country to take a stab at independence. There are at least 3 active militant movements in the Philippines: the Moro Islamist Liberation Front, the Moro National Liberation Front, and, to add an even sweeter treat to the mix, a “province” of the Islamic State. Booting American special forces from Mindanao, where these insurgencies rage, will undercut Manila’s special forces; changing equipment on those troops will make them near useless for a time. Doubtless, the Americans know this, and know that any president who loses territory to a rebellion will not be remembered kindly.
But these are all short term of a fast switch. What if Duterte lasts a second term?
And herein is the danger to the American Pacific alliance system. For both China and Russia to get freer hands against America, they must crack America’s massive alliance networks. That is incredibly dangerous work: to push too hard could spark a world war. They can only hope two things: that the Americans make mistakes and alienate friends, and that friends begin to see the Americans as in their way of progress and decide to opt out of their alliances.
Duterte sees the Americans as in his way of power. This is a huge opportunity for Beijing and Moscow to build influence in a country where neither traditionally had any. Neither can really replace the Americans right now, but that doesn’t mean they can’t replace the U.S. eventually. If Duterte can develop a Filipino nationalist movement that is anti-American at its core, that door could open. That is what the Americans must seek to prevent, for if the Philippines goes neutral, or even worse, falls into China’s orbit, it will alarm all of America’s remaining allies, and certainly make it look like the 21st century in the Pacific will belong to China.
There are indications that Duterte is neither disciplined nor a visionary enough to build a movement that survives his single term (as a reader pointed out correctly, the Philippines allows only a single term for its president under its current constitution, though a strongman Duterte might seek, like Turkey’s Erdogan and Russia’s Putin, to rewrite said rules in his favor). That’s just his track right now: even bad leaders can learn from their mistakes. He goes up against some powerful odds: Filipinos like the U.S. even more than Americans. And they are not big fans of China. But minds can be changed; leaders can more readily lead in collectivist cultures, and if his drug war does bring the appearance of stability and order, he may well have the breathing space to advance a nationalist agenda.
China and Russia must wait and hope the U.S. makes the situation worse; depending on the next president, they might get their wish. As for ordinary Filipinos, their president is making them into a geopolitical football. They will get a great deal of attention; they may not like it.