Duterte's Diplomacy: Dumb or Deft?
While scandalized sections of the Manila elite continue to rant over the "gaffes" of the president, public attention is now more drawn towards them and their ignorance, rather than towards the subject of their righteous ire: the wily Duterte.
Increasingly, the country’s “decent class" is left with a few options to besmirch him, more so on a topic it barely understands: geopolitics and diplomacy.
Fifty years of traditional politics did little to push an independent foreign policy, as it was often contingent on the positioning of our de facto Big Brother, Uncle Sam. Philippine positions on major issues often mirror the American position, though obviously out of the US context. Duterte's critics often dont have the sophistication for independent thought, fearing more and thinking less.
Against wisdom, for instance, the Manila-centric Aquino Administration succeeded only in becoming Washington's agent in Asia, to the chagrin of many ASEAN countries that, expectedly, did not provide a joint communique on the China sea dispute even AFTER the arbitral ruling favoring us, a fellow ASEAN member.
This only shows that the US-backed position does not sit well with the rest of the SCS claimants. America, for all intents and purposes, is a spent nation, big on talk, dry on action. After all the anti-China rhetoric and the talk pushing Freedom of Navigation, the Chinese proceeded to build their structures in plain view of the country's treaty ally that swore to defend us in an "ironclad" manner.
Duterte and his people may have read this well.
Thus, his moves in Vientiane, Hanoi Beijing and Tokyo all seek to rebalance PNOYs apparent folly by shifting the focus to Asia, building the lost confidence with the pivotal neighbor on everyone’s behalf and deftly lowering the tensions that policy analysts were worried would escalate into real conflict.
He knows that only with dialogue can we regain what was lost, given that the US can never replace the trade volumes and business relationships that China may take away, or the choking of important sea lanes for ASEAN, Europe and everyone else's trade. That is a strategic interest that cannot and should not be compromised.
Duterte’s detractors in Manila stubbornly fail to understand why he chose to break with the US, and while he continued to assert the gains of the Hague ruling as a framework for bilateral negotiations.
But the proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating, as China has since toned down its maritime aggression. Duterte thus chalks up a seemingly small, yet significant victory for our fisherfolk.
Independence requires a careful understanding of one's interests and putting these above everyone else’s—yes, even those of one's supposed allies.
The long-term advantages of Duterte’s diplomatic style are indispensable.