Duterte’s ‘Domino Effect’?

Whether you call Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s badmouthing of the Obama Administration and US Congressional politicians blustering or bluff, there is no doubt that his ‘pivot’ to China and demands for the eventual withdrawal of American troops from Philippine soil has caused considerable anxiety and consternation in Washington. One analyst writing in the National Interest called it the “Duterte Effect” as he questioned whether the loose cannon president is triggering a ‘Domino Effect’ among ASEAN countries in terms of recalibrations of policy toward China and the South China Sea.

Last week, angered by the US State Department’s halt of a planned sale of 26,000 rifles to Philippine police forces, Duterte lashed out at the “fools” and “monkeys” behind the decision.  Last week also saw a state visit to Beijing by Malaysian Premier Najib Razak during which he concluded a whopping US$34.25 billion set of 14 agreements which, much to the displeasure of the US, included the purchase of four Chinese-made ships, two of which will be built in China and the other two in Malaysia.  Mr Najib also lauded the China-backed Asian Infrastructure Development Bank as a turning point “of peaceful dialogue, not foreign intervention, in sovereign states”.  His trip followed closely on the heels of Duterte’s state visit mid last month when he declared a “separation” from the US.

In an editorial in the China Daily, Najib admonished former colonial powers for ill-treating smaller countries, Malaysia having been a colony of Britain and Philippines of Spain and the US for some 50 years before the end of WWII.  “It is not for them to lecture countries they once exploited on how to conduct their own internal affairs today”.  In spite of being a disputant with China over islands in the South China Sea (which Najib wrote should be settled through bilateral negotiations), Malaysia is keen to strengthen ties with China in the wake of lawsuits filed by the US Justice Department accusing Najib of complicity in the misappropriation of US$3.5 billion from IMDB.  Over the summer, Najib dismissed the lawsuits as US interference in the country’s affairs.

So, are we witnessing a ‘domino effect’ involving two key ASEAN countries that could substantially influence the behavior of other smaller Southeast Asian states or is it as one pro-US scholar described as “sensationalism” and “exaggeration” on the part of the Western and other press?

As it stands, within ASEAN, Cambodia (Kampuchea) remains China’s staunchest ally and since the 2014 military coup, Thailand has steadily tilted in favour of Beijing. And while post-election Myanmar is diversifying relations with the West and Japan, Aung San Suu Kyi’s historic 5-day visit to China in summer 2015 resulted in the signing of a big batch of agreements and infrastructure deals.  Meanwhile, Laos and Vietnam, while maintaining traditional ties with China, are hedging their bets a little by welcoming all comers, including the docking of both US and Chinese frigates at Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay which proved so crucial during the Vietnam War.  Finally, although Indonesia’s policies toward China and the US are still a work in progress, Americans can still depend on its all-weather lap dog Singapore for unflinching support.  But, even that relationship isn’t as solid as it used to be.

A Chinese foreign policy blogger cited three reasons for Malaysia’s chumming up with China on top of Malaysian annoyance at American-style interference in its domestic affairs: First, China is already investing US$7.3 billion in a major port in the Strait of Malacca with a high-speed rail link-up from China to Thailand and through Malaysia to Singapore coming down the pipeline.  Second, on the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, although China exerted strong pressure on Malaysian authorities, it also afforded the country significant leeway in the handling of the search and its aftermath.  Finally, Malaysia is keen on playing a central role along the Maritime Silk Road through Southeast Asia and secure a big chunk of infrastructure projects that China proposes to build in the region.

The Japanese government and media are particularly inscensed over the domino effect of Duterte’s stoking of anti-US rhetoric and steering away from the US, Ma Yao, a guest scholar at the International Relations and Public Affairs School at the Shanghai Foreign Languages Institute opined to the Chinese media. First, in a matter of months Duterte has managed to muck up US-Japan’s grand strategy to contain China through a diamond-shaped axis that has been years-in-the-making.  Second, a democratically elected Duterte chose to huddle with authoritarian China and negotiate bilaterally on South China Sea claimant issues instead of coordinating policy with the US and Japan and spite of the Philippines’ shared political system and ideology.  Third, the Japanese were completely taken aback by Duterte’s behavior who in their view should have consulted with Japan before going to China.  That Duterte chose to go to China first was a harder slap in Japan’s face.

At the same time, scholar Ma recognizes that Japan’s fears of dominos vis a vis the South China Sea disputes may be overblown as the US will continue to exert pressure on its allies within ASEAN to stay the course and refrain from negotiating directly with the Chinese. Moreover, despite the Duterte setback, the Americans hold hopes for Vietnam to play a bigger role since, for one thing, it has a much more robust naval force.  Finally, few Southeast Asian politicians share Duterte’s style of no=holds-barred cannon blasting and few of them enjoy the strength of domestic political support that the Philippine President currently enjoys.  In this respect, the US and the West are criticizing Duterte on the very issue that garners for him such high loyalty. – his war on drugs and taking the fight to drug-traffickers.  This is where, among other things, China’s policy of non-intervention has Duterte enamoured.

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