For someone supposedly so afraid of war that he gave away the Philippines’ EEZ to China, Duterte’s reckless taunting of the United States by ridiculously invoking the PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) cannot be merely dismissed as a joke. Duterte is obviously toying around with our national security and international alliances. The United States might treat Duterte as a regional nuisance on its Pacific side, and altogether forego any diplomatic rejoinder to his challenge. But it might also take it as further indication of Duterte’s public contempt of his country’s alliance with the United States, with the corresponding long-term consequences to US policy vis-a-vis its standing security arrangement with the Philippines.
Siding with China
Duterte enjoys taunting the United States. He is not, however, of the same disposition when it comes to China. In the latter’s case, he behaves with utmost servility and unabashed obeisance, as only a slave would to a foreign master. There is no question about Duterte’s personal allegiance. He would definitely not side with the US in a Pacific conflict, when he has not even sided with his own country against China on simple matters of China’s violent incursions in the West Philippine Sea and bellicose posturing in its artificial islands in the Spratlys.
Duterte’s challenge to the US is not a mere taunt, it is actually an insult. He is saying that the US is a worthless ally, and could not be relied upon to come to the defense of the Philippines in the event of Philippine hostilities with China. He would like to make it appear that this is the basis for his mendicant policy towards China, and not the fact that he has already sold his soul to the Chinese in exchange for, among others, the China bloc’s support in international forums. Most recently, China’s bloc of Middle East and African countries voted with the Philippines against the UNHRC Resolution calling for a comprehensive report cum investigation on the human rights situation in the Philippines.
In a regional conflagration, Duterte would want to ally the Philippines with China, putting it in the same boat as North Korea, Cambodia, Laos, Pakistan, and Myanmar against the US, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and probably the rest of the ASEAN. This is as premature as it is inopportune. In a regional regime still dominated by détente, despite China’s aggressive policy of area-denial in the South China Sea, no one is talking about war. Only Duterte is. And he would go as far as to invite the US to attack China under the pretext that the Philippines is now invoking the PH-US MDT.
Of course, Duterte will say that precisely this is his point. By showing the absurdity of the Philippines triggering a US-China war by invoking the MDT, he therefore justifies his policy of subservience and mendicancy to China, all in the name of avoiding a war with China, when, in truth and in fact, everybody already knows that he has already been bought by China. By taunting the US to attack China, Duterte is supposedly showing the absurdity of risking a war with China over some fish and giant clams. He therefore obfuscates the real reason for his treasonous policies, that simply he has become China’s lapdog.
Playing with fire
Ironically, in an effort to prove his point that the Philippines cannot go to war with China, the cover-up for his blatant treason, Duterte is playing with fire. Not even other populist authoritarian leaders play so fast and loose when it comes to scratching potential scabs of conflict. Imagine Turkey’s Erdogan daring NATO to attack Russia’s Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol, or Brazil’s Bolsonaro inciting Argentina to invade again the British Falklands. It is one thing to fan the fires of domestic conflicts by asking the local populace to go out and kill drug offenders, it is another to do the same thing with major powers in possession of nuclear arsenals and powerful naval armadas. No national leader goes around in such alarmist sarcasm and condescension, provoking a superpower into a foolish gambit and goes away with it.
Duterte cannot go on acting as if his foreign policy statements are without regional, even international consequences, not to mention repercussions to national interest and security. International relations are not built on drunken macho street-talk that Duterte has been used to all his life as a mayor in the country’s southern backwaters.
Up to a point the Philippines’ regional neighbors and global allies will no longer be able to tolerate his pronouncements as the musings of an unstable or “colorful” head of state, to use the words of Barack Obama. Sooner or later, an incident might occur where sober and rational proclamations will spell the difference between escalation and rapprochement. When that time comes, I for one would not trust this President with the ability to sound serious or credible on the world stage, not after this demonstration of his propensity for casual war-mongering and obstinate harking to a future of irredentism, the latter when the Philippine armed forces is supposedly already prepared to take back the Spratlys from China.
Bull in China’s shop
Duterte’s two-dimensional portrayal of Philippine foreign policy as geared towards either hostilities or subservience might serve his purpose of obfuscating his groveling posture towards China. But it has the uncanny consequence of inflaming a status quo of constructive diplomacy and, so far, relatively uneventful Western challenges to China’s exclusion zone in the South China Sea. He is fast becoming a wild card in the region, the unknown variable in the peace and security equation of the Asia Pacific. It might be only a matter of time before the major stakeholders decide whether to continue tolerating a nuisance at the expense of stability in the region.
The problem with Duterte’s cavalier and dismissive handling of regional peace and security, a matter so delicately approached by the major powers in the tight-rope act of diplomacy, is that it makes him the region’s walking casus belli, the bull in the china shop (pun intended). There is a possible psychological explanation for this. At the outbreak of World War I, Sigmund Freud declared that “all my libido is dedicated to Austria-Hungary.. In the same manner, Duterte dedicates his to China, in the hope of attaining that much elusive hard-on that can only arise from infantile jingoism. – Rappler.com
Senator Leila de Lima, a fierce Duterte critic, has been detained in a facility at the Philippine National Police headquarters for more than two years over what she calls trumped-up drug charges. She is a former justice secretary and chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights.