Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been on the radar of the international community by being a trailblazer of controversy. Having only been in office since June 30, Duterte has been recognized around the world for his verbal tirades against the US and his alarming crackdown on crime and drugs. Duterte’s entrance into mainstream Philippine politics, however, has been welcomed by Filipinos who see his administration as a break in the elitist Manileñan grip of power. Perceived as brash, outspoken, and nationalistic, Duterte comes off to the rest of the world as a leader who does not understand the consequences of his actions. Yet, Duterte’s track record as a public servant working for the interests of the Philippine people is significant. Duterte was a former prosecutor, served as a local mayor, and is now in the highest office. “Embarking on this crusade for a better and brighter tomorrow” for Filipinos, Duterte seems to be on the quest for a strong Philippines in South East Asia. How has he been doing this? In his first several months in office, Duterte has been exploiting the presence of regional and international organizations for Philippine self-interest.
Attempting to resolve the best possible outcome for the Filipino people in the South China Sea dispute, Duterte has been playing “a skillful realist…[knowing] how to appropriately balance between China and the United States.” Duterte needed to deal with various facts coming into play. First, China rejected the ruling made by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that gave the Philippines exclusive rights over its designated territory in the South China Sea. Second, the US has been increasingly involving itself in the South China Sea to protect its own national interests. Third, with Duterte coming from Mindanao (the Southern most part of the Philippines), his orientation towards the US has not been forthcoming. Alongside other Mindanaoans, Duterte detests the historical intervention of the US in this particular region of the Philippines which has led to atrocities like the Jolo Massacre.
Needing to assert Philippine sovereignty from both China and the US, Duterte employed a strategic naming and shaming campaign against the US at the ASEAN conference this year. The effects of this campaign would be two fold. First, it would serve as a power play of words to China. By showing that the Philippines has the audacity to stick it to the US, Duterte would show that the Philippines stands for its own interests in South East Asia. Second, it would serve as power warning to the US that the Philippines will assert its sovereignty when encroached upon. Duterte’s fiery invective against President Obama leading up to ASEAN and his closing speech at ASEAN which publicly admonished the US’ involvement in Mindanaoan affairs exploited the very norms that characterized the ASEAN Way. Duterte’s reproach at ASEAN not only broke face, but also disrupted the norms of mutual respect and quiet diplomacy that distinguishes ASEAN as a regional organization. As a result however, Duterte’s brazen attitude has led the way for China to consider reopening talks regarding the South China Sea, which could hopefully lead to the US to back off from the maritime region.
Duterte’s objective in attaining a crime and drug free Philippines is what he believes is the best way to secure law and order and fight corruption for the interests of the Filipino people. Yet, the coverage of extrajudicial killings for Duterte’s War on Drugs has been referred to as a crime against humanity. UN Special Experts on Human Rights have even criticized and urged for a halt to these unlawful killings in the country. In response, Duterte has denounced upon the failures of the UN to solve issues in other regions of the world, and has even alluded to the Philippines leaving the UN to pursue its national interests. Duterte even proclaimed in the hypocrisy and toothlessness of the UN for accusing the Philippines of such an atrocity, while disregarding the historic violations of the US (like police brutality). In turn, Duterte exploited the presence of the UN by citing its inability to effectively enforce anything as his justification for his War on Drugs.
Overall, Duterte’s first several months in office shows a realist Philippines looking for ways to exert its sovereignty in South East Asia. By looking at how Duterte maneuvered through ASEAN and UN Rapporteurs for Filipino national interests, weaknesses of both regional and international organizations have come to light. Shared practices in regional organizations can be easily broken for the pursuit of national interests. The collective action problems, special treatment of developed states, and failures of international organizations can detract from their legitimacy when put up against national interests.