Spam, Ma Ling or baloney? Statesman-like Duterte’s adventures in Beijing

Photo: Presidential Communications Operations Office

President Duterte came home from Beijing this week with a bag of deals for Chinese investment and offers of friendly support from Russia, but a widening gulf between him and Washington. Should he trust his new “friends”?

By Holly Reeves

If you ever want to measure American influence on the Philippines, then stay for breakfast. Spamsilog, slices of the imported American tinned meat Spam, garlic fried rice and a sunny side up egg is a national staple. And as the country’s relations with America wobble amid a supposed pivot towards Beijing, social media is mourning its breakfast options. But is the Chinese alternative of Ma Ling, or Chinese influence in general, in the best interests of Filipinos?

Speaking to a group of Chinese businessman during a visit to Beijing this week Duterte said, “I announce my separation from the United States.” He added, “America has lost. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to (President Vladimir) Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines, and Russia. It’s the only way.”

Warming relations?

Beyond the flippant replies from young netizens about the state of tinned meat, these comments have brought cautious attention at far higher levels. “Formulate your wish list. What kind of assistance do you expect from Russia and we will be ready to sit down with you and discuss what can and should be done,” said Russian Ambassador Igor Khovaev. Russia is open to working with the Philippines in “any area, any field of possible cooperation,” he explained.

And across in Washington, the latest outburst may be one too far for the American administration. “We’ve seen too many troubling public statements from President Duterte over the last several months,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters. “And the frequency of that rhetoric has added an element of unnecessary uncertainty into our relationship that doesn’t advance the interests of either country,” he added.

But as always with Duterte, things may not be what they seem. By the time he had landed back in Davao, the story had changed. “It’s not severance of ties,” he explained, “Severance is to cut diplomatic relations. I can not do that. Why? It’s in the best interests of my country that I don’t do that.” And he’s right; although it may be his interests, not those of his country, that he is concerned about.

The president’s words have “raised a lot of eyebrows in the Philippines,” says Richard Javad Heydarian, a political scientist at De La Salle University in Manila. “You see sarcastic comments like, ‘Was that a state visit or a tributary visit?’, which shows that people are not very comfortable with how deferential he is towards China.”

Reforming the game

Duterte’s view is that “it’s like having a co-equal relationship with everyone. No one is above anyone,” says President Communications Secretary Martin Andanar. “We have good relations with China. Soon, we will have good relations with Russia. And we have good relations with Japan. We’ve had good relations with the United States, with the UK, and other countries.”

But this may not wash with political authorities, either overseas or at home. The important thing to remember is that the President alone cannot entirely divert the nation’s foreign policy, and 60% of Filipinos still prefer Washington to Beijing. “He still could change his words in the future,” said Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor and government adviser from China’s Renmin University.

“Now he is in Beijing and he is speaking words to a Chinese audience … But after Beijing he will be in Tokyo. I think what he will say in Tokyo will naturally be somewhat different from what he said in Beijing,” says Shi. “Philippines-American relations have been damaged, of course. But still, this is only the beginning. In the future, nothing is certain.”

Gambling alliances

The problem with predicting the twists and turns of the current Filipino foreign policy is the honesty and gut-driven reactions of the hopelessly popular President Duterte. However, this latest announcement – whether or not it was later watered down – feels less off-the-cuff. The Duterte that went to Beijing this week was not full of expletives, or outbursts of anger, as we have seen in recent months. Instead, it was a measured statesman who may be beginning to show his true hand in the regional poker game of influence, territory and diplomacy reborn.

But what does that diplomacy look like? A new Philippine, Chinese and Russian alliance would rewrite Southeast Asia’s political climate when former ambassadors to China are warning him that trusting Xi Jinping is a gamble. And bringing Moscow into the fold is further than any of the country’s leaders have ever reached. Is this a new axis of evil emerging for Washington? Or a key strategic step by a leader who is quickly learning what is needed?

Beneath the furore over Duterte’s comments lies a more lasting impact;  13 new agreements signed during this visit which are together worth over US$15 million. With these the president is eyeing new financial and technical support from China in law enforcement, energy, transportation and engineering and other vital areas. It may not be a Spam breakfast but could turn out to be a far better deal for the Philippines and its people than what is currently on the table.