Is President Duterte a political chameleon?

Photo: Rody Duterte/Facebook

He says one thing in Beijing and another in Tokyo, but it is wrong to label Philippines’ President Duterte a cunning political player. Instead, he is learning the rules of the game as he goes along, all while facing up to a future caught between the interests of the world’s biggest players.


There are three of us against the world – China, Philippines and Russia”, said President Duterte as he finished up his October trip to Beijing, adding that the two countries would resolve their South China Sea dispute through diplomatic discussions. His next trip was to Japan. There he told the world that his host nation was a “true friend” of the Philippines.

In Beijing, Duterte said nothing detailed about the South China Sea arbitration yet in Japan he not only mentioned it, but talked about strengthening Philippine-Japanese security ties. Also, his rhetoric about his visit to China changed in Tokyo, claiming that his prior visit was “all about economics”.

Subsequently, many analysts say Duterte’s abrupt shift in behaviour is interest-oriented, calling him a “chameleon” that changes his stance repeatedly to obtain the favour of whichever country he happens to be visiting. And there are obvious reasons for his openness to both sides. Japan and China are the country’s two largest trade partners respectively (the US is the third largest).

Philippines first

Looking at the history between these four, the Philippines was not a sovereign state when Japan invaded in World War II. After the war, the country not only attained independence but Japan offered economic assistance and developed trade with the nation, leaving many Filipinos with a favourable impression oof Tokyo. At the same time, the Japanese are an important provider of Manila’s military equipment and so a key partner.

Regarding China, most people agree that economic relations between the East Asian giant and the Philippines are significant. However, they also acknowledge that there can be no compromise in the South China Sea sovereignty dispute between the two.

Further out from the region, Philippine history with America began during the Cold War, when Duterte’s nation played a significant role as a military base from which the superpower could operate its containment strategy in southeast Asia. Its strategic location made it a useful supplies and maintenance base for the US during the Vietnam War, but civilians were left resentful by the attitude and behaviour of American military personnel based in the country.

Some of that ill-feeling remains, with Philippine Police recently using a van to ram into an anti-US rally supporting Duterte’s “independent foreign policy” which was held outside the American embassy in Manila. Some 50 protesters and 30 policemen were hurt.

Taking all these factors, and modern political pressures, into account President Duterte is supposed to put the views of the voters, and the common consensus, at the front of his decisions as a leader. As such, although he may adjust his approach to different situations he must stand firm on their basic interests. It seems, however, it is more often his behaviour that is in the headlines, not his intentions.

Separation ≠ divorce

During the ground-breaking visit to China mentioned above, Duterte also announced his “separation with the US,” creating a tsunami of news headlines. But one day later, his Trade Minister Ramon Lopez, helped him clarify this statement saying, “regarding economic (ties), we are not stopping trade, investment with America. The president specifically mentioned his desire to strengthen further the ties with China and the ASEAN region which we have been trading with for centuries.”

Back in his home territory, Duterte himself picked up on his earlier comments saying, “It is in the best interest of my country that we maintain that relationship…Because there are many Filipinos in the United States. Well, Americans of Filipino ancestry…Because the people of my country [are] not ready to accept. [When] I said separation – what I was really saying was separation of a foreign policy.”

This subtle difference in language would have been obvious to diplomats in both China and Japan; it would be clearly understood on all sides that the Philippines cannot entirely leave the side of the US. This was no clever political play, as a typical grassroots President, Duterte knows little about the manner, routine and common sense of diplomacy.

And in that manner, he is no longer alone on the international stage. He recently congratulated American President-elect Donald. Trump, with whom he shares the habit of “coarse language,” on his surprise election victory. On almost on the same day, Trump went ahead and announced a complete revision of American foreign policy that promised only to maintain the existing security alliance with South Korea. The relationship between the two clearly has far to go.

With these hard lessons, the inexperienced Duterte is learning about the realities of diplomacy. His learning curve will get no easier, but perhaps he will get better at playing the game.