Known for his off-the-cuff inflammatory remarks, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte latest rants have caused international concern, resulting in capital flight and drops in the stockmarket and currency. Dubbed “Duterte Harry” for his crackdown on drug pushers, he has managed in a mere three months on the job to insult a number of world leaders, including the Pope, who he blamed for traffic jams: “I wanted to call him: ‘Pope, son of a whore, go home. Do not visit us again’.” Immediately prior to a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Laos he reacted to a suggestion that Barack Obama might question him over human rights issues, calling the U.S. president a “son of a whore,” which he later explained was not meant to be a personal attack. And when the European Union government warned Duterte to end mass killings of suspected drug dealers and users, he reacted sharply. “I have read the condemnation of the European Union. I’m telling them, ‘F**k you,'” which Duterte was filmed saying during a speech to local businessmen in his hometown of Davao City on September 20.
In recent weeks, Duterte’s bombastic remarks have spooked both domestic and foreign investors, with the Philippine peso sinking to a seven-year low and global funds selling Philippine stocks for 23 straight days.
Duterte has also threatened to pull out of the United Nations, and told U.S. special forces, which are helping Philippine counterinsurgency troops fight an Islamic insurgency, to leave the country, saying “These US special forces, they have to go in Mindanao.” He has also vowed to end cooperation with the U.S. military in patrolling the disputed South China Sea, confirmed by a statement from Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr., arguing “To engage the Philippines with another state, say the United States, in so far as a joint patrol in the area where we have made our claims, or the exclusive economic zone, can be considered as a provocative action by other claimants, particular China, which will impede the peaceful settlement of our disputes.”
While pivoting away from the U.S., Duterte is looking to boost economic ties with Russia and China, and told his defense secretary on September 13th to buy weapons from Russia and China rather than America. Duterte also plans to hold bilateral talks with Beijing to discuss conflicting claims on the South China Sea.
And so it was in this context that Duterte paid his first official visit to Vietnam (his fourth country to visit) last week to meet his counterpart, Tran Dai Quang. The two-day visit to Hanoi, marked the 40th anniversary of bilateral relations between the two countries. Fortunately, he did not produce any more publicized zingers—these took place after he returned to Davao and likened himself to Hitler with promises to kill 3 million Filipino drug addicts.
What the visit did accomplish, though, was to build on their strategic partnership agreement signed last year. Both countries are claimants to vast areas of the South China Sea, with Manila leading the way on dispute resolution through its filing of a case in 2014 before an international tribunal in The Hague. In July, the tribunal finally issued a ruling in favor of the Philippines and against China’s nine-dash-line claim, which was determined to have no legal basis.
After arriving back in the Philippines, Duterte told reporters, “We reaffirm commitment to maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation and over flight as well as unimpeded commerce in the region, particularly in the South China Sea”. The two countries also agreed to enhance maritime cooperation while protecting the livelihoods of both Filipino and Vietnamese fishermen.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Yasay echoed Duterte’s doctrine of peaceful cooperation—while also acknowledging Vietnam’s claims, “we are very happy that Vietnam has made the same commitment in ASEAN to the rule-based system and peaceful settlement of their claims in the East Vietnam Sea. While we are not taking sides in so far as our respective claims, we respect Vietnam’s claims as much as Vietnam respects our claims.”
So while the previous administration in Hanoi had previously angered Beijing by seeking legal advice from Manila in order to potentially file their own claim at The Hague, the new leadership under Quang appears to be backing off confrontation with Beijing, along with Manila. Any jointly-coordinated legal or military effort between Hanoi and Manila appears now to be out of the question for fear of provoking the dragon next door, while we await the outcome of hopefully peaceful bilateral negotiations. From what has been reported, the unpredictable Duterte’s visit to Hanoi went smoothly, and talk of peaceful settlement of the dispute with Hanoi has seemingly calmed the waters (for now) of the South China Sea.