When President Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte announced his “separation” from the United States during his state visit to China, it shook the world. Not that it would have changed the balance of power in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, but it was because of the abrupt – “strange,” I might say – way of which it was announced. But what is surreally baffling is his retraction the next day. Is it a case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde syndrome or it’s just plain grandstanding?
One personality wants to maintain the status quo on U.S.-Philippine relations while the other personality wants to sever all ties with the U.S. and align with the “ideological flow” of China and Russia. And in a moment of Napoleonic illusion, he saw himself as part of an alliance – China, Philippines, and Russia — against the world! Why didn’t he include North Korea?
The problem is: Duterte (also known as Du30) seems to live in his own little world totally detached from the geopolitical realities that dictate how nations – and their leaders — interact with one another. He seems to think of the Philippines as an island onto itself that can provide security for her people without help from anybody. And, worst, dismantling the Philippines’ military ties with the U.S. would strip the Philippines of the capability to defend her sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Digong’s brand of geopolitics
Evidently, Duterte’s brand of geopolitics digresses from established norms and conventions in international relations. His handling of the Philippines’ West Philippine Sea/South China Sea claims vis-à-vis the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) ruling, which is overwhelmingly favorable to the Philippines, has bungled the country’s strong case against China. Had Duterte stayed on course in pursuing the Philippines’ claims, the other claimant-countries could have used the PCA ruling to pursue their own maritime claims against China.
It’s interesting to note that with all the geopolitical mishaps and diplomatic faux pas that Duterte did, he had the temerity to claim that he was a Foreign Service graduate. At a press conference last October 19 during his state visit to China, Filipino journalist Ellen Tordesillas quoted him in her column as saying: “Now that I am the President, by the grace of God, I read a lot; I’m a lawyer and I studied geopolitics and all, and also I am a graduate of the Foreign Service so I get to know how to balance this contending (forces).”
But what Digong did was break one of the rules of geopolitics, which is: “Geopolitics is not a zero-sum game.” Indeed, in today’s globalized economy, the object of geopolitics is to arrive at a win-win situation where players need to compromise. Gone are the days when nations go to war to settle territorial disputes. The Cold War is over and we are now living in a multipolar world order where all nations are interdependent with one another. The world is shrinking too; and everybody is just a “click” away.
Digong’s attempted maneuver to “separate” from the U.S. — militarily and economically — and threatened to form an alliance with China and Russia, did not only fail to materialize but it also made a “village clown” of himself. And while he made all these geopolitical and diplomatic boo-boos, his Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had the thankless job of straightening out the knots and kinks of his “independent foreign policy,” which has been causing a lot of embarrassment for him.
It’s all drama
With all the “Du30 drama” he staged in Beijing, Duterte was able to attract $24 billion in investments and loans from China. It must have made Chinese President Xi Jinping feel triumphant that the Philippines — under Duterte’s leadership – is now in his pocket, totally detached from the U.S. And it would certainly have given him a firm grip on the vast South China Sea. Wrong!
The day Digong returned to the Philippines, he clarified that he’s not cutting ties with the U.S. He said he was just pursuing a “separation of foreign policy” from the U.S., which was quite different in meaning and purpose to what he proclaimed in China, which was “separation from the U.S.” He said that he didn’t want it to affect local jobs in American-owned companies in the Philippines and the large number of Filipinos in the U.S. He also said that it is in the best interest of the Philippines to maintain diplomatic relations with the U.S.
An article on the Nikkei Asian Review titled, “Duterte’s ‘about-face’ unsettles Xi,” published last October 28, talked about Duterte’s volte face [an act of turning around so as to face in the opposite direction] upon his return to the Philippines. The report said: “The Internet was not slow to react to Duterte’s volte face, and the word ‘fraud’ has gone viral. One social media post read, ‘Duterte changed his face as soon as he returned to the Philippines after securing money from China.’
“The reference was to the traditional Chinese art of ‘face changing,’ where performers go from one character to the next by swapping masks in a Beijing opera or during a banquet. Many feel it was not the mask that was changed so much as a complete change of heart.
“Other online posts put it in less uncertain terms, ‘China got dumped. China was deceived,’ read one. Another said, ‘It is a divorce in disguise [from the U.S.] for the sake of borrowing [from China]. That’s not uncommon in China.’ ”
It must have occurred to Duterte that he didn’t have to let go of the U.S. now that he had secured a huge economic package from China. During his subsequent visit to Japan following the China trip, he appointed Philippine Star columnist Babe Romualdez as special envoy to the U.S., reportedly as part of a “rebooting” of relationship with the U.S.
The Philippine Star report said: “Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. informed Romualdez of his appointment yesterday at the Imperial Tower Hotel in Tokyo, on the sidelines of Duterte’s three-day official visit.
“ ‘We are trying on how we can work with the changes… especially with the upcoming elections in the US so we will see how we can (establish)… let’s call it as rebooting our relationship with the US,’ said a member of the President’s official delegation here.
“ ‘We’d like to communicate the message of how we will have a rebooting of our relationship,’ the official, who declined to be named, added. ‘Yes, of course we will continue our relationship with the US.’
“As special envoy, Romualdez’s ‘special mission’ is to put back on track Philippine-US relations,” the report concluded, which begs the question: Can Romualdez fix the damage Digong made?
Geopolitics is addition
Now that Digong has his cake, he wants to eat it, too. But while a zero-sum game might produce intermediate success in the short term, just like what Digong did on his China visit; he should – nay, must! — realize that in the long term, good geopolitics produces better results if it weren’t played as a zero-sum game. It reminds me of the late legendary political leader Eulogio “Amang” Rodriguez whose mantra was “Politics is addition.” And so is Geopolitics.
At the end of the day, Digong’s flip-flop diplomacy may have worked in his favor at this time, but he must be careful because it could boomerang the next time he flip-flops.