Why is Rodrigo Duterte friendly to China but yet so popular?

Photo: Facebook page of Rodrigo Duterte

By Loke Hoe Yeong

Today (9 May), Filipinos go to the polls to elect their next president. The latest opinion polls show Rodrigo Duterte strengthening his lead over the next strongest contenders, Grace Poe and Mar Roxas, to emerge as the clear favourite to become the next President of the Philippines.

Comparisons between Duterte and Donald Trump, now the presumptive Republican nominee for the US presidential race, have been made by ASEAN Today, among other outlets and commentators. Both Duterte and Trump have gained notoriety in the international media for their populism, sexist slurs and “strongman” image. And yet both men fare very well at home, albeit in a very polarised political climate.

One curious point on Duterte’s policy utterances stand out – his attitude towards China, and his plan for resolving the increasingly bitter dispute that the Philippines has had with China over the South China Sea in recent years. Campaigning on a tough anti-China stance would seem to be intuitive for any presidential candidate intending to make a dent in Filipino politics at the present time.

But not for Duterte. He has exuded a friendly demeanour towards China. He has gone as far even to propose that the Philippines negotiates with its larger neighbour over the maritime disputes.

The following blurb can be found on Duterte’s campaign website, listed clearly as one of his policy stances as part of his manifesto:

Presidential bet Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte made a stand regarding the Philippines’ dispute with China over the South China Sea.

Duterte said that he would cooperate with China on bilateral or country-to-country talks, instead of what the current administration is doing to resolve the issue.

“I have a similar position as China’s. I don’t believe in solving the conflict through an international tribunal. China has said it will not abide by whatever that tribunal’s decision will be. That’s the same case with me, especially if the ruling will be against the Philippines,” Duterte answered when asked on a press conference during his campaign leg in Puerto Princesa City.

How is that the frontrunner in the presidential race, and one known for his populist pandering, and ride against the current of Philippine hostility to China – and yet do so well in the polls?

Explaining the Duterte paradox

One explanation is that this is evidence – as would be presented by Duterte’s supporters – of Duterte’s ability to separate level-headed foreign policy decisions from the populist bend of his campaign that is necessary for enlarging his support base throughout the country. A maverick politician, as some might say.

But his rape joke is downright unacceptable, moreover as someone vying for his country’s highest office. His response to criticism from the US and Australia of his rape joke – namely in telling those countries to “go ahead and sever” diplomatic ties with the Philippines – is even more shockingly irresponsible.

A Filipino professor of political science has said that Duterte “connects easily with the common people because he talks like an ordinary individual.” But as with politicians, Duterte would be forced to live up to the image of the candidate as presented to the masses during campaigning, when elected.

That would be extremely disturbing, if Rodrigo Duterte indeed becomes president.

A second explanation is one that again draws parallels with the concurrent US presidential race.

The mainstream leaders of the US Republican party have found that their long time championing of conservative issues on abortion, same-sex marriage and gun rights had never cut deeply into the Republican support base.

As it has turned out, a Republican candidate such as Ted Cruz, who had run his campaign on being the true defender of those conservative issues so sacrosanct to the Republican cause, has found out that is not what Republican voters really want after all. What they want is Donald Trump, and Cruz has now officially dropped his presidential bid.

Hence in the Philippines, all this business of the sabre-rattling against China and bringing it to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague to rule on the South China Sea could in fact be of no real interest on the part of ordinary Filipinos – and one that Duterte has calculated that he can take a different turn from the establishment.