“I will be chartering a [foreign policy] course [for the Philippines] on its own and will not be dependent on the United States,” exclaimed Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ firebrand president shortly after winning a historic election in May.
After almost a century of strategic dependence on the US, the Philippines was now interested in charting its own destiny. Duterte presented himself as a fully fledged maverick, willing to shake up the Southeast Asian country’s state of affairs, even if it came at the expense of estranging traditional allies.
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Not long ago, though, the Philippines’ newly elected president was dismissed by many across the globe as a foul-mouthed provincial mayor.
Many analysts questioned his competence to lead one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Others feared he lacked the requisite strategic knowledge to handle major foreign policy issues such as the South China Sea disputes.
A month into office, however, he has found himself on the receiving end of proactive courtship by global powers, both the US and China, who are eager to win Duterte’s goodwill.
Foreign policy reset
A self-described “socialist” with strong historical ties with Philippine communists, Duterte has promised a new era, both domestically and vis-a-vis the international community.
He offered a paradigm shift in Philippine foreign policy. Some of his liberal critics, with close ties to the US, were quick to warn of a potential Hugo Chavez scenario in the Philippines.
Like none of his predecessors, Duterte, during one of the testiest days of the campaign period, went so far as to tell the US Ambassador in Manila, along with his Australian colleague, to “shut their mouths”.
He even threatened to cut off ties with the Philippines’ two strongest Western allies once he assumes presidency.
If Duterte's temporary diplomatic recalibration fails to bear fruit, he expects greater assistance and assurances from Western allies as a fallback option. And this is why he has eagerly welcomed high-stakes exchanges with top US officials.
He rarely missed the chance to repeatedly place Washington in the spotlight by questioning the superpower’s commitment to the Philippines.
At one point, he cryptically signalled the possibility of restricting US military access to Philippine bases.
“They [US military] could not use any other place [in the Philippines] without the knowledge or until there is advice from the [Philippine] Armed Forces,” explained Duterte when asked about his views on the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between Manila and Washington.
Meanwhile, Duterte repeatedly met the Chinese Ambassador, Zhao Jinhua. In fact, the Chinese envoy even met the Philippine president shortly before an arbitration body at The Hague, at Manila’s request, ruled against Beijing in the South China Sea (PDF).
By all accounts, these were uncharacteristically cordial exchanges, poignant given the increasingly bitter maritime disputes between the two neighbours.
No less than Chinese President Xi Jinping sent his personal congratulations to Duterte, who, in turn, signalled his willingness to re-open communication channels with Beijing and not flaunt the Philippines’ legal victory at The Hague against China.
A more subtle analysis, however, reveals that what Duterte seeks is not decoupling from the West, and jumping into China’s embrace, but instead creating a healthy balance in Philippine foreign relations.
Duterte wants to make sure his country is not taken for granted, while extracting maximum benefits from superpowers courting his country.
So far, the strategy seems to be working. In fact, instead of estranging the West, Duterte seems to have caught their attention like never before.
US President Barack Obama was the first head of state to personally call Duterte upon his election victory.
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, came next. The US’ incoming envoy to Manila, Sung Kim, has proven track record in high-stakes diplomacy, having served as special representative for North Korea.
This month alone, the US dispatched two of its most senior diplomats to Manila in order to preserve one of its most valuable alliances in Asia. First, it was Kristie Kenney, counsellor of the US State Department and former US ambassador to the Philippines, who sought to “start the conversation with the new Filipino government”.
Not long after, Secretary of State John Kerry landed in Manila, eager to discuss the “full range” of strategic engagements with the Philippines.
The visit by the US’ leading diplomats reflects growing concern over the possibility of a major redirection in Philippine foreign policy, particularly towards China.
In recent months, the Asian giant has offered the Philippines major infrastructure investments, while offering “dialogue” to resolve the disputes in the South China Sea.
Duterte is taking a leap of diplomatic faith, appointing former President Fidel Ramos, a highly respected statesman who deftly managed maritime disputes with China in the mid-1990s, to kick-start high-level bilateral negotiations with China.
Yet, Duterte seems aware of the inherent risks in dealing with Beijing, which has proven intransigent in territorial disputes. Most likely, the Filipino president is considering a short-term tactical shift – direct engagement with China – to test the (disputed) waters.
If his temporary diplomatic recalibration fails to bear fruit, which is highly likely, he expects greater assistance and assurances from Western allies as a fallback option. And this is why he has eagerly welcomed high-stakes exchanges with top US officials.
One thing is clear, though. With both China and the US actively courting the Philippines, Duterte, a former provincial mayor, has astutely enhanced his country’s bargaining position at the regional strategic table.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.