WHEN President Rodrigo Duterte attends the 33rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Singapore on November 11-15, his his fellow Asean leaders, international media, and curious onlookers may be watching for telltale signs of illness.
That would be ironic. For all the talk of cancer, Barrett’s disease, or whatever may be ailing the President, his two-and-a-half years in office, in fact, showcase not weakness but strength, particularly his immense impact not just on Southeast Asia, but on the entire hemisphere, from Japan to Saudi Arabia, Russia to Australia.
Take away Duterte, and what would have become of these regional events since he took office on June 30, 2016:
— Beijing increased its clout in the South China Sea, as Washington failed to move most of its naval forces to the region under its “Pivot to Asia” policy, due to Manila’s retreat from the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
— Japan boosts ties with the Philippines, matching China’s infrastructure largesse, plus donating marine surveillance aircraft and patrol boats, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visiting Manila and Davao.
— Asean will hold its first military exercises with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Another first: Russia donates arms to the Philippines, and exchanges naval visits with the country.
— Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore boost anti-terrorism cooperation, following the Marawi war against Islamic State-inspired and -funded extremists in Mindanao.
— Following the Philippines’ war on drugs, Indonesia and Bangladesh intensify their anti-narcotics campaigns, using lethal force against narco-syndicates, defying Western criticism.
— Middle East nations adopt policies for better conditions and protection of overseas workers, following the Kuwait-Philippines dispute, conciliation, and labor pact.
Asia’s geopolitical recasting
No one saw all this coming when the erstwhile little-known mayor of faraway Davao City reluctantly agreed to run for the presidency in December 2015, then improbably rose up the surveys, and eventually buried his opponents in a landslide victory in May 2016.
This writer did signal the possibility of big geopolitical changes in Duterte’s first month in office. When the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in the Hague ruled on the Philippine suit over China’s maritime claims and reclamation, Western media jeered Beijing’s threatened rejection of the decision.
However, this column’s July 14, 2016, article saw something even bigger happening: “The geopolitical ball is now in Rodrigo Duterte’s court. How the Philippines’ new President plays would impact the next round of high-stakes rivalry between America and China for preeminence in East Asia.”
And so he did. By reversing his predecessor’s embrace of America and squabbling with China, President Duterte shifted Asia’s geopolitical fulcrum.
With US forces unable to set up shop in the Philippines, China faced no formidable adversary within the so-called first island chain of archipelagos surrounding the country: Indonesia, the Philippines and Japan.
However, knowing that Duterte could quickly rev up EDCA and let Uncle Sam back in, the Chinese actually followed key provisions of the Hague ruling it rejected: letting Filipino fishermen back to Panatag Shoal, and stopping reclamation in the disputed Spratly islands.
Unnerved by Manila’s coziness with Beijing, Tokyo scrambled to offer economic and military aid. Recently, for the first time since World War 2, Japanese tanks were deployed outside Japan, in military exercises in the Philippines last week.
Unable to deploy massively without bases in the Philippines, the US brought in allied navies to join it in challenging China’s territorial claims over illegally reclaimed islands in the Spratlys.
America created the Quadrilateral alliance with Japan, Australia and India, which have all sent vessels into the South China Sea. So have Britain and France, US allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization defending Europe.
Next month, the US plans its biggest naval exercise in the South China Sea, ratcheting up its so-called “freedom of navigation” operations, or fonops, challenging Chinese maritime claims.
This week, Duterte told Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jiajua that the Philippines will stay clear of the American saber-rattling on the high seas, as the country prepares to welcome President Xi Jinping on his November visit to Manila.
Defying the West
Along with recasting Asian geopolitics, President Duterte led the way in defying Western standards on human rights. Putting the safety of law-abiding Filipinos over due process, he unleashed deadly force against drug networks.
More than 5,000 have died in police operations, and many thousands more drug-related personalities were killed by hitmen. America, Europe, Australia, Canada, and the United Nations decried the deaths; so did rights groups here and abroad.
But Duterte cussed his critics, from then US President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, to the European Union, the UN Human Rights Council, and the International Criminal Court. And he withdrew the Philippines from the ICC, and rejected EU aid with rights conditions.
Two of Asia’s most populous nations, Indonesia and Bangladesh, have also taken a deadly line against narcotics. A few hundred have died in both countries, and Bangladesh has reinstated the death penalty. So has Sri Lanka.
In geopolitics as in rights advocacy, Duterte weakened the West’s decades-old dominance in Asia. Rather than taking the cue from America and Europe, Asia is now putting national interest and law and order first.
Will Duterte’s way last?
In 2022, President Duterte ends his six-year term. Or sooner: he talked several times about resigning once the country adopts federalism. And last week, he said he will not prolong his life if diagnosed with cancer, based on recent tests (they were negative).
Amid talk of term limits and terminal illness, Asia may wonder if Duterte’s geopolitical and law enforcement influence would last.
Would his successor let US forces gush in, escalating the armed rivalry between America and China? And would he or she restrain police guns, pulling back Asia from its deadly anti-drug drive?
Whatever happens, one Duterte tack will likely stick: Asia will no longer let the West dictate security, international, law enforcement, and other policies.
Even after Duterte, Asians may well do their thing, and to hell with the West.