Duterte: street-smart diplomat or overreaching mayor?

By: Kristine Angeli Sabillo July 5, 2017

On his first day in office, President Rodrigo Duterte promised to fulfill the Philippines' international obligations.

FULL TEXT: President Rodrigo Duterte inauguration speech

Less than a month later, he said he won’t honor the historic Paris Agreement on climate change, which he called “stupid” and “absurd,” over fears of stymied economic growth.

READ: Rody won’t honor Paris climate pact

A month after that, he threatened to withdraw from the United Nations amid its linking of extrajudicial killings to his war against illegal drugs. This was before he criticized then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and supposedly cursed then-US President Barack Obama.

READ: Duterte threatens to take PH out of UN

But a year into his presidency, Duterte has already signed the climate change accord and has yet to withdraw from the UN or the International Criminal Court. Instead, he has forged closer ties with China and Russia and has kept friendly relations with the US through new president Donald Trump.

Twelve months and 21 foreign trips after, Duterte has become the most traveled Philippine president in his first year of office. This is despite the fact that he holds the record for being the oldest elected president, as well as having an outspoken dislike for traveling.

READ: Duterte: 21 trips, 17 countries, 77,542 miles

As in other aspects of his governance, Duterte has been perceived as giving mixed signals in terms of foreign policy.

No doubt, Duterte is a polarizing figure, both locally and internationally.

He has been hailed as a maverick, for insisting on an independent foreign policy for the Philippines, and vilified as a “hoodlum,” for his volatile character and penchant for swear words.

READ: Joma Sison: Duterte can be ‘volatile’ but…


Political analyst Ramon Casiple believes that the President knows what he’s doing — from befriending China to slightly distancing the Philippines from the US.

“I think he’s street-smart,” Casiple told, explaining that international relations are all about national interest and common sense.

“There’s no ideology here. It’s only national interest,” he said. “Don’t believe the US when it says we are friends. Don’t believe China when it says we are friends.”

Casiple said Duterte was being “street-smart” when he decided to appoint Trump’s business partner, Jose E.B. Antonio, as the country’s special envoy to the US.

Video interview by KRISTINE SABILLO/edited by RYAN LEAGOGO

Declining West, rising East

On the other hand, Casiple said Duterte made a “timely” decision to pursue an “independent foreign policy” amid a shifting global scene.

He said a “multi-polar world” has started to form, which was accelerated with Trump’s decision to pursue an “America first policy” while other nations like China and Russia vie for a wider sphere of influence.

“In a multi-polar world, an independent foreign policy that President Duterte initiated basically makes us flexible. We are not aligned with any of the contending powers but there is potential to be friends with all,” Casiple said.

He calls Duterte’s independent foreign policy a “normalization” of relations with the likes of US and China. This means no more “special” relations with the US. “It merely means that we are bringing the relationship to an equal basis,” Casiple said.

During Obama’s administration, Duterte railed against the US, which he claimed has been dictating on the Philippines and is an unreliable ally. This was after the US State Department expressed concern over the drug war.

READ: ‘Time to say goodbye,’ Duterte tells US during visit to China

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte and Peopleís Republic of China President Xi Jinping shake hands prior to their bilateral meetings at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 20. Photo by: KING RODRIGUEZ/Presidential Photo

Molly Koscina, US Embassy in Manila spokesperson, denied that such criticisms have resulted in changes in the two countries’ relations. The US is focusing on its “broad relationship with the Philippines” as the two countries’ military relationship “remains robust and multifaceted,” she said.

On the issue of human rights violations brought about by the drug war, Koscina said the embassy has already discussed its concerns with the Philippine government.

“We are encouraging our Philippines partners to conduct transparent investigations into reports of extrajudicial killings, and to ensure that all investigative and enforcement efforts uphold the rule of law,” she said.

Several thousands of people have been killed in relation to the President’s war against illegal drugs. Some human rights groups have said that Duterte’s actions are tantamount to crimes against humanity.

At one point, Duterte said last year’s regular Philippine-US military exercises would be the last. Another was held this year but was scaled down from previous years in terms of the number of soldiers who participated.

Political analysts assess President Duterte's foreign policy. Video by KRISTINE SABILLO/edited by CATHERINE MIRANDA.

READ: PH, US end shortened, scaled back ‘Balikatan’

When the US halted the sale of assault rifles to the Philippine National Police, Duterte said he would look to Russia for new firearms.

READ: Duterte turns to Russia for rifles

Local politician

Renato de Castro, another analyst focusing on Philippine-US relations, described Duterte’s actions as a “foreign policy gambit” that is similar to former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s equi-balancing policy on the US and China. Equi-balancing refers to engaging other nations through multinational institutions instead of joining the bandwagon and siding with one of the competing powers, De Castro said in a paper published by the Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs.

De Castro claimed that it is a misconception that the Philippines is pivoting towards China. Instead, he argued that a stronger security partnership with Japan, which is still in good terms with the Philippines, “enables the Philippines to effectively play its classic diplomatic gambit of equi-balancing, or the art of pitting one great power against the other.”

Jay Batongbacal of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea discusses the factors shaping up President Duterte's decision. Video interview by KRISTINE SABILLO/edited by RYAN LEAGOGO

However, De Castro told in an e-mail that Duterte has failed to state the reason for the Philippines to distance itself from the US as it becomes more “dependent on a big power (China) bent on depriving us of our Exclusive Economic Zone in the South China Sea, and a Eurasian power (Russia) that is considered a pariah in Europe.”

“Is it based on an honest to goodness assessment of national interests and the current developments in the global society or simply a matter of his whim?” he said.

Jay Batongbacal, Director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said the government’s strategy is “vague.”

“They want the Philippines to be not so close to the United States. They want the tensions at sea to be removed. So there’s that vague sense of what needs to be achieved. But I don’t think there’s a clear, deliberate and well-honed strategy for achieving those objectives,” he said in an interview with

Batongbacal said the decline in power of the US does not mean the Philippines should throw away its ties. “It’s not so easy to just switch sides,” he said.

He said Duterte might still be “thinking along the lines of…a local politician switching political parties.”

“It doesn’t work that way,” he said.

As mayor of Davao City for seven terms or 22 years, Duterte has become one of the longest-serving mayors in the country.

Despite being elected president, he has insisted on being called mayor, at least by members of his Cabinet.

READ: Just call me mayor: Duterte shuns ‘Mr. President,’ ‘Your Excellency’

Supposed misinterpretation of his words has been attributed to the rest of the country’s lack of familiarity with his distinct leadership style in Davao.

“People, particularly the media should already take the lessons. What’s the lesson? Don’t believe him when he says something,” Casiple said. “Because maybe one, two, three days after he can easily say it’s a joke.”

“Because that’s the way he handles his own leadership in Davao,” Casiple explained. “Of course There’s a big difference, there’s a world of difference between presidency and being a mayor but then that’s him. I think you should judge his acts rather than his words.”

Diamond in the rough

Casiple said he considers Duterte a “rough diamond” who knows his limitations.

“I think if you look at what he (was) doing at the start of one year and what he is doing now, there’s a lot of difference. He still curses but he (has learned) to temper that already,” he said. “And I think he has more appreciation of complexities of negotiation and relations.”

Batongbacal disagrees.

He said Duterte has focused on the drug war while other people with vested interests “ride on” to his administration.

“He has not really shown that deep of an interest in foreign affairs or in agriculture and even economy. Those are being done by his people,” Batongbacal said, adding that Duterte seemingly not been giving clear guidelines to his people who are left to improvise and adjust with each other.

“Some people say he’s (a) visionary but I don’t think he has a comprehensive vision of the country,” he said. “Because if he (Duterte) did, one of the first things he would be doing would be to try to unite the people with his vision.”

“Instead what he’s been doing for the past year is sow…he’s been sowing divisions,” he said, referring to Duterte’s treatment of those who criticize his drug war or oppose his leadership.

At one point, Dutere rejected millions of euros worth of development aid from the European Union after the latter expressed concern over the summary killings likened to the government’s anti-illegal drug campaign.

Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella said at the time that the grant would have allowed the EU to “interfere with the internal policies of the Philippines.”

READ: PH rejects $280-M EU aid with strings attached

EU Ambassador Franz Jessen told through e-mail that the regional bloc continues to work with the Philippines as it had before.

“President Duterte has set new priorities for the Philippines, and where possible we seek to work together and support these as for example in the implementation of a peace agreement in Mindanao,” he said when asked about Duterte’s criticisms against supposed foreign intervention.

However, Jessen said the EU will continue to campaign against death penalty, which it “strongly opposes.” The death penalty, backed by Duterte’s allies, has been among the priority legislations in the House of Representatives.

Batongbacal said Duterte is at odds with the US and EU because “liberal democratic societies tend to be more vocal in their concerns, as they would be in a democratic setting.”

“He thinks that any criticism is directed at him personally,” he said, adding that Duterte does not like his authority being challenged or undermined.

READ: Duterte deserves credit and criticism

‘Major disappointment’

Batongbacal said this is one reason why Duterte likes China amid territorial disputes in South China Sea.

“China stays away from that (criticism). So that’s one reason why he (Duterte) likes that. No matter what he does, China will not speak up and criticize until Chinese interests are the ones being affected,” said the IMLOS director.

Batongbacal considers the Philippines softening stand on the South China Sea, especially as this year’s chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) a “major disappointment.”

He said the momentum has been building up “towards a united Asean” but it was supposedly dropped by the Philippines.

“When Asean was finally moving toward the unified position and looking to the Philippines for leadership, all of a sudden the Philippines drops the entire thing,” he said.

China, the Philippines and other members of Asean such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Vietnam have overlapping claims in South China Sea.

Observers lamented the Philippines’ failure to discuss or bring to the fore the issue of the South China Sea disputes by including it in the chairman’s statement.

READ: Asean final statement silent on China island-building

“I would put the responsibility squarely on the Philippines for that,” Batongbacal said. “Even the previous chair’s statement was stronger than that of the Philippines. And the previous chair was one of the countries identified with China.”

Batongbacal was apparently referring to Laos, which chaired Asean in 2016.

Nevertheless, he said it is too early to assess Duterte’s performance as Asean chair since he has only been to one summit.

“The agenda of that activity, much of it was already pre-determined by the time he took office,” he said. “Nonetheless, the chairman does have some key areas that he could affect. One of them is setting the agenda for the discussions. Second being the fact that he holds the microphone for Asean at that time.”

Batongbacal and De Castro believe that the Duterte administration has reversed or undone the previous administration’s foreign policy on South China Sea.

Batongbacal said that while tensions were lowered, “the government has conceded a lot to China.”

“The initial soft landing idea was good because at that time tensions were so high so it was good. Problem was in the follow up, after the soft landing, then came the pivot, so-called pivot, which went overboard,” he said.

“We’re avoiding the thought of standing up to China for fear that it would lead to war. Such fear being, I think, unfounded and exaggerated,” he added.

READ: Duterte assailed for ‘defeatist’ stand vs China

Batongbacal said that it’s not just the sense of fear that is driving the Duterte administration to accommodate China but also “opportunism.”

“The belief that China being the most powerful economy…the economic power in the region, the idea that it has a lot of money, a lot of possible opportunities,” he said. “I think that’s also driving the administration, under the belief that America or the West, the European Union no longer has anything to offer.”

De Castro said Duterte has exchanged the country’s patrimony for China’s investments and loans, which makes the “country dependent on an expansionist power bent on depriving us of our territorial rights in the South China Sea.”

But Bantongbacal pointed out that the Philippines has yet to get anything “tangible” from China’s promises.

He doubts Duterte will ever discuss with China the decision of the arbitral tribunal, which is in favor of the concerns of the Philippines in Southeast Asia.

“He refused to mention Chinese militarization in the South China Sea, and the result of the PCA (Permanent Court of Arbitration) arbitration in the chairman’s statement because he got a lot of money from China” was De Castro’s candid take on the issue.

Independent foreign policy

Both Batongbacal and Casiple are skeptical about Duterte’s claim to pursue an independent foreign policy.

“Independent foreign policy is such an easy term to abuse,” Batongbacal said. “And nobody will admit that they have a dependent foreign policy anyway so I don’t put much stock into that term. It’s really the actions.”

He said Duterte, in public, appears to “verbally abuse” former allies and foreign friends but there are no guarantees that the administration’s policy will be independent.

“At best, the foreign policy might actually be even more dependent than ever before. This whole shift towards China and soliciting Chinese economic assistance for example, we’re already seeing right now a huge amount of discussion on China’s foreign assistance, the way they do business, the dealings that they have, the terms and conditions that are attached to their assistance,” he said.

Batongbacal said the country’s current foreign policy does not have clear direction. There is also disconnect when it comes to his views and the views of the institutions such as the Armed Forces of the Philippines, which has close ties with the US.

On the other hand, Casiple believes that Duterte is truly the first president to pursue an independent foreign policy as he refuses to align it with that of the US.

He said the Philippines is a “second class-level” ally of the US, which has failed to give “really modern weapons” to Filipino soldiers. Instead, Casiple said that the US has been selling refurbished vessels to the Philippines.

Batongbacal said the worst case scenario for the Philippines’ foreign relations is the possibility of giving up the claim in resource-rich West Philippine Sea by abandoning detachments in Pagasa island and the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal.

“We can be forced to do that without China firing a shot,” he said. “When the president stated sometime last year that he would be willing to sell the islands to China for example…that’s really problematic.”

But for Casiple, the worst case scenario is another world war, which the Philippines can avoid if it stays independent of the US or China.

“When bombs start falling, we are not supposed to be targeted if we know how to play our cards,” he said. IDL