EVEN before he was elected president, President Rodrigo Duterte has issued many statements that have riled American sentiments towards its former colony.
In October 2016, a few months after his inauguration while in an official visit to Beijing he announced the country’s separation from the United States (US) and its opening to China and Russia as new allies. At one point he cursed then US President Obama for criticizing his war on illegal drugs which had by then caused the death of more than a thousand small-time drug users and suppliers at the hands of the police under questionable circumstances.
It is unknown how much American investment had been diverted because of Duterte’s tirade, especially in the business process outsourcing industry where the Philippines is a leading host country. Ironically, despite the president’s unrepentant attacks on what he calls US hypocrisy towards the issue of extra judicial killings, many polls showed that majority of Filipinos trust America more than China as trade and security partner.
Nonetheless, Duterte has always been steadfast in his desire to craft an independent foreign policy to advance the greater interest of the nation.
Apparently much to the annoyance of the Americans, Russian and Chinese warships lately made port calls in the country on separate occasions, the former toured by Duterte himself in Manila while the latter by his daughter, Mayor Sara Duterte Carpio in Davao City. Later, the president also boarded a Chinese vessel in his home town.
This January Donald Trump became president of America and since then the world has seen the US bombing of a Syrian air force base to punish president Bassar-al Assad for what was alleged as the use of chemical weapons to kill his own people. Tension in the Korean peninsula has also simmered due to the North’s continued missile testing despite international condemnation of the exercise deemed provocative by the US and its allies in the region, especially South Korea and Japan.
Both heads of state have been described as having many similarities as unrefined politicians who have rankled established rhetorical and leadership norms. They disdain social and political niceties and statesmanship when the same get in the way of their pursuit of their individual objectives. Since Trump’s assumption as the leader of the world’s remaining superpower, not much critique of Duterte’s domestic actions has been heard from the American president who incidentally has a number of his campaign staff embroiled in accusations of ties to Russia.
Just recently, to the surprise of many Trump watchers he invited Duterte to visit the White House drawing loud protestations from human rights advocates who label the Philippine president as a cold blooded killer.
There is no doubt that Trump wants to restore waning US-Philippines relations in the face of the warming partnership of Duterte with China’s Xi Jinping. Trump must have perceived Duterte as a strong bridge to the president of China, the country he called currency manipulator during the campaign. It also doesn’t hurt that the Philippines is strategically located and has a live Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the US and the facilities to host US assets and men for whatever military purpose that suits American intentions.
Surprisingly, after Xi’s own visit to the White House in April this year, the unpredictable US head applauded the Chinese strongman and has since openly courted China’s help in reining in and pressuring North Korea to put a stop to its missile program. The United States declared it needs all the friends it can muster in the event an armed confrontation happens in this part of Asia. The showdown can occur if North Korea does not heed America’s warning or in a very far-fetched but not totally unlikely scenario, much like in the movie Wag the Dog, Trump might use the Korea card to deflect public attention from his campaign’s connection to Russia.
This issue and allegations of Russian hacking that may have undermined the integrity of the 2016 American election are presently fodder for liberal US news networks and has the potential to seriously damage if not bring down the Trump presidency. The brewing scandal may cost him a second term, at the very least and an impeachment at the worst, if not effectively covered up.
As for Duterte, the US president’s personal invitation could be considered a partial victory in his strategy to play the US against China to advance Philippine interest in the international diplomatic stage. How to win concessions? Only he knows.
Now that his gambit has been taken, it’s up to him to exploit the situation but he is treading on soft and uneven ground. He must be utterly careful, lest he slips and could bring the country down with him.
Published in the SunStar Bacolod newspaper on May 03, 2017.
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