Evidently the Philippines leader is not letting grass grow under his feet. On the face of it in a few short weeks he has taken decisions on policies – internal as well as external - that have serious long-term consequences for the democratic make up of his country as also for the geopolitical situation in the region. Many of them could have an element of irreversibility about them were he to last out his full term as president, which seems likely and even go in for a second term, also very likely going by his current popularity..
Well before he was elected and in the run up to the presidential election he had announced far and wide that extra-judicial killings could become the order of the day under his presidency. In executing these policies he would be accountable to nobody within the country and nor would he brook outside interference. He has lived up to both in letter and spirit. At the moment things are going all his way. The scale of his electoral victory and the fact that his support from the underprivileged was adulatory and almost devotional has enabled him to rough ride over whatever little opposition that might have come up, mostly articulated so far in a subdued manner, from the legislators and the traditional power centers in Manila. He does not feel obliged to seriously consult them. While the elite in his own country and leaders and establishments in the West might look askance at his demagoguery and outlandish pronouncements his popularity ratings with the Philippines continue to grow. Being assured of the groundswell of support for him, especially when executing the more harsh measures he seems to be unmindful of criticism..
On the face of it he may appear to be overturning long held policies of his predecessors rather brusquely and without consultation with stake holders. Nevertheless it is more than likely that he is playing his cards shrewdly and taking his cue from some of the other global leaders who have consolidated power. In some ways he might have taken a leaf out of Donald Trump’s book when he throws out remarks that other leaders, notably in a democracy would hesitate to make. For example, his pronouncements on President Obama bespeak of an absence of any pretence at statesmanship, now or in the future.
The extra-judicial killings allowed by him have already crossed the 4000 mark according to most estimates. The president shows no sign of letting up on them. The opposition seems to have become terrified into silence although evidence appears to be emerging that many private scores are being settled in the process and the police seem to be answerable to no one other than the top. Unsubstantiated stories have emerged that in certain coastal villages fishermen have killed some rivals after declaring them to be smugglers. Nobody seems to know as to how far this trend will be allowed to continue or whether it would be possible to reign in the marauders at a later stage.
Externally he seems to have thrown caution to the winds by giving the marching orders to the United States military; again a complete reversal of the policies of his predecessors. In the process he has gone ahead to befriend China, disregarding the verdict of the UNCLOS Tribunal and putting the future security of the Philippines in the hands of the erstwhile adversary. From all accounts emerging in military and diplomatic circles in and around the Philippines none of the foreign policy decisions were collegiate decisions or decisions taken after prolonged consultations. These were again gut decisions that have serious geopolitical consequences.
Firstly, by summarily expelling the United States he has pushed the region into geopolitical turmoil. By rushing into the Chinese fold, although full details of the quid pro quo, if any, from China have not emerged, other than the Chinese agreeing to fishermen from the Philippines being allowed back into waters from which they were excluded or pushed out. It is possible that the Chinese would have promised large investments, something which would be welcomed in the country, seeing that a few billions here and there, even 10 billion dollars plus to begin with do not incommode the Chinese in any way.
Unsurprisingly the biggest beneficiary of the policy changes of the Philippines government will be the Chinese. Evicting the Americans from the Philippines Archipelago would go a long way in establishing Chinese ascendancy over the South China Sea. The Navies of all countries in the region would be obliged to re-assess the situation. The Southern pivot of the US strategy to counter China seems to have slipped out of their control and moved in the direction of the adversary. Here it has to be conceded that Mr. Duterte might have made a shrewd move for the longer term security and prosperity of his country sensing that China would emerge stronger in the coming years. The current US presidential elections would certainly have been taken into account.
The geopolitical ramifications for the US and its allies in the region could border on the alarming depending upon how far the Philippines military establishment that has remained silent to date allows the president to radically change direction; a direction from which return to an earlier status might not be possible. Opposition might emerge internally at the jettisoning of traditional alliances that have been established since World War II in some cases. What would become of Philippines relations with Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, India and especially ASEAN.
The last named would easily be the most affected. It would be premature to say that the Philippines government might not have second thoughts about opting out of policies worked out collectively with their ASEAN partners over the decades. These include the Code of Conduct and several other collective decisions taken for dealing with China, especially over the conflicting claims of several ASEAN countries over islands claimed simultaneously by China. These would be severely compromised were the Philippines government to change direction.
Last but not the least unless Mr. Duterte were to be obliged by his armed forces and the foreign policy establishment to hold water over his initial overtures to China the two-fold action of the Philippines government in abandoning traditional allies and almost going over to China could deal a severe blow to ASEAN solidarity throwing doubt over the future of the alliance. There would be no more collective decisions for dealing with China which looms large over ASEAN. Till date the hold outs from the collective decision were Cambodia and Laos although of late Malaysia and Thailand also had some reservations. With Philippines potentially going over to the other side or even doubts about which way that government might turn or vote in the future automatically shatters the cohesion of the grouping. India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Singapore, Brunei and many more countries would start re-assessing their relations with the Philippines. It is not inconceivable that as is his wont Mr. Duterte might have acted in haste.
Executive Director, Eco Monitors Society
New Delhi, November 3, 2016