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How will the President’s rhetoric absent of policies ultimately affect the Philippines?

Both sides of the divide will have their own opinions and supporting arguments for the bold pronouncements of President Rodrigo Duterte. But whether you question how the President’s anti-American rhetoric will affect the Information Technology and Business Process Management industry (which in 2015 generated US$22 billion in revenues, and is trending to overtake Overseas Filipino Workers’ total remittances by 2017), or you welcome the foreign policy shift to open opportunities to and from other markets—there is little doubt that Duterte has managed to get everyone’s attention.

Now, whether his brash assertions can lead to mutually beneficial international relations, and perhaps more importantly, actual policies beneficial to the country is a different matter altogether.

Rebalancing relations

Asian geopolitical and economic affairs specialist Richard Javad Heydarian recently pointed out in an Aljazeera.com article that while Duterte has rarely missed an opportunity to unleash invectives at the US – placing Washington under the spotlight in the process– a subtle analysis “reveals that what Duterte seeks is not decoupling from the West, and jumping into China’s embrace, but instead creating a healthy balance in Philippine foreign relations.”

This was similar to Malacanang’s translation of Duterte’s declaration of “separation” from the US, with Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella saying that what the President said was a “restatement of his position on charting an independent foreign policy,” while adding in a statement that the President wants to reduce the country’s dependence on the West, and rebalance economic and military relations with its neighbors.

“So far, the strategy seems to be working. In fact, instead of estranging the West, Duterte seems to have caught their attention like never before,” Heydarian added, while pointing out that amidst the countless tirades, the US has dispatched a number of high-level diplomats (Kirstie Kenney, Sec. John Kerry and incoming US envoy Sung Kim)—a sign of the US’ growing concern of foreign policy redirection towards China.

Question of policy

This possibility is echoed by Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, who in an interview with The Feed, said that in Duterte’s mind, he could be seeking to play Washington off against Beijing and Moscow to get a better deal.

Davis, however, quickly follows this up by saying, “He thinks he is in a strong position, and all sides will come to the table to give him what he wants, but I don’t see the US being suckered into such a play. Instead, Beijing and Moscow will happily accommodate him, and exploit Duterte’s vanity to their benefit, and Manila’s disadvantage.”

Of course, this current game the President is playing will only really take shape when actual policies are either made or changed.

But so far, the temporary diplomatic recalibration looks to have, at the very least, put the Philippines on the international market’s radar. Apart from the US$24 billion in investment commitments and credit facilities from China and the US$1.85 billion from Japan, which came from Duterte’s state visits, there have been reports that Sweden, following the US’ halting of firearms sales to the Philippines, is looking to tap into the country’s defense market, while Poland recently sent, after 17 years, a business delegation to look into investment opportunities.

For a Duterte optimist, and on the surface, these certainly appear to be the results the President is aiming for. Although, it’s important to note, particularly on the Chinese side of investment commitments, another sudden shift will be perilous to the to the delivery of those investment agreements and the eased tensions in the South China Sea.

Absent concrete policies, the international community is being set up to be kept on their toes when it comes to dealing with the Philippines’ volatile President. And maybe, which is a huge maybe, the premature pronouncement– policy vagueness ratio could lead to an enhanced Philippine bargaining position at the regional strategic table. How long that lasts is a line Duterte will have to toe cautiously.