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Rodrigo Duterte: Gambling with Foreign Policy in the Philippines

In all democratic societies, there comes a time when the people become frustrated with the way things are and thirst for change. They grow angry and impatient, and they want someone to lead them who advocates for a government focused on the drastic change they desire. The election of Donald Trump in the US is a perfect example of this phenomenon. The people want change, and they are willing to support drastic measures by their government to get it.

The same phenomenon occurred when Duterte was elected as President of the Philippines. His campaign was centered around his bloody “war on drugs.” Drugs were, and still are, a huge problem in the Philippines, and the Philippine people desperately wanted their next president to be someone who pushed for that kind of extreme campaign against issues like this. But, over the past decade, the Philippines has experienced growth that earned them a place as one of the most dynamic performers in Asia, and at times, Asia’s fastest growing economy. So why would they elect Rodrigo Duterte, an advocate for change?

The answer lies in the fact that despite their economic success the growth didn’t spread evenly throughout the country, leaving marginalized regions and social classes deeply dissatisfied. So although Duterte’s policies are extreme, the people are willing to sacrifice some lives if it means the betterment of their own.

Since Duterte became president, there has been a sharp increase in drug-related killings in the Philippines, with over 3,500 deaths in the last few months alone. Many were killed by police and many through vigilante justice. The US has stated its concern with this sudden increase, and the UN has called Duterte’s actions a crime under international law, leading Duterte to threaten to withdraw the Philippines from the UN.

Duterte’s foreign policy has been highly volatile in the past months as he cozies up to China and Russia and pushes away the Philippines’ allies, namely the US. His vicious criticism of the US might be beginning to pay off; earlier in October, Duterte visited Beijing, where he declared his intention to abandon a long-standing alliance with the US in favor of warming up to China. Philippine security officials said that China had lowered the number of ships at Scarborough Shoal, allowing Filipino fishermen to fish in this disputed part of the South China Sea. This could potentially be an important concession from China, one that could help greatly to reduce tensions. Yet, what China gives it can also easily take away. China has previously fallen short on promises to its supplicant states.

As Duterte pivots toward China, relations with the US are at an all time low. The foul-mouthed Philippine president has threatened relations with the US in ways ranging from calling President Obama a “son of a whore,” to canceling a US weapons deal to flat out announcing that “America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow,” and “maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.”

Duterte’s foreign policy as of late is definitely a gamble whose outcome cannot be foreseen. It begs questions concerning the future of foreign policy in the Philippines, the future of the country’s relationship with the United States and whether it was a bad idea to take the US’s support for granted. If the Philippines becomes friendly with and gains support from China and Russia rather than leaning on the US, will there really be no price to pay? Will the Philippines end up under China’s thumb, with no US to help them? President Obama took Duterte’s insults with grace, but would President-elect Trump do the same? One can only wait and see how this gamble in the Philippines will end.