Rodrigo Duterte is Cold with Elections Looming in the Philippines

  • Duterte’s single six year presidential term is set to come to an end.
  • The leader’s pivot to China has significantly backfired, and has been forced to revert his policies.
  • The Philippines is critical to the regional balance of power and Duterte’s foreign policy will likely have a lasting impact on its role.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is seen in Quezon City on August 27, 2019. Duterte recently threatened to block the franchise renewal of Philippine broadcaster ABS-CBN. (AP/Bullit Marquez)
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte / AP-Bullit Marquez

Why is Rodrigo Duterte’s heat level Cold?

Answer: Corruption allegations, in tandem with Sara Duterte-Carpio’s vice presidential nomination, have hindered Duterte’s hopes for a continuation of his political system.

The coming months mark a potentially pivotal time in the fate of the Philippines and its foreign policy. As President Rodrigo Duterte’s six-year tenure comes to a close – with the constitution prohibiting him from seeking reelection – the elections in May 2022 will determine whether or not the Philippines continues to accommodate China, or if it will follow its more customary inclination towards Washington. 

Since his arrival to the scene, Duterte championed an unprecedented shift away from the US and towards China, arising from his desire to push a policy more independent from the US towards Russia and China, and aligning with his nationalist ideology. He sought to bring Chinese investment into the country, and even opted to appoint a Chinese businessman as his economic advisor – a blatant violation of Philippine law prohibiting foreigners in government posts.

However, despite Duterte’s embrace of China, the promised economic benefits have not materialised with only 5% of the promised $24 billion in investments coming to fruition. In fact, in the recent past it would appear that Duterte’s hand has been forced away from Beijing and towards Washington given China’s own ambitions in the region. The leader, and his successor, is now faced with the conundrum of balancing individual interests with both the US and China given their prominence in the Philippines.

That being said, despite the failure of Duterte’s pivot to China, he remains popular in the country, with a 75% satisfaction rate as of June 2021. This unprecedented popularity is largely due to his domestic policies, especially his war against drugs that played to the public’s frustration with the justice system. Furthermore, he provided monetary assistance to those who lost their jobs during the pandemic which was well received by large segments of the population. Consequently, Duterte has the ability to have an impact on the outcome of the election, notably with his own daughter in the running for vice president. 

However, Duterte’s ability to yield continued domestic influence through his daughter has been hindered by the fact that Sara Duterte-Carpio announced her nomination for vice-presidency alongside Bongbong Marcos – Marcos Jr. This suggests that the current incumbent will face an uncomfortable power sharing arrangement with the Marcos family, having already labelled Marcos Jr a “weak leader.” Moreover, the surfacing corruption allegations against Duterte could weaken the political support carrying forward from the President for the Duterte-Marcos pair that has in the recent months dropped to 58%.

Who is changing Rodrigo Duterte’s temperature? 

Answer: Duterte, who is constitutionally barred from seeking reelection desires influence in the government and is being prosecuted by the ICC for his war on drugs 

As Duterte’s tenure comes to a close, constitutionally barred from seeking another term, the leader now looks ahead seeking political continuity. With his daughter in the race, it would appear that he has an outlet to continue exerting influence or even taking the reins in the background. Although the president and vice president are elected separately, with Sara Duterte and Marcos Jr running from different parties, it is not uncommon for the country’s leaders to form an alliance regardless. Hence,  It is likely, therefore, that he will seek to consolidate political support for the Duterte–Marcos ballot.

This is epitomised by his decision to pull out of the race for the senate, which appears to be a move to redirect his supporters towards the pair. Moreover, the stakes are even higher for a candidate of Duterte’s choice to be successful, not only for the sake of foreign policy continuity, but also because he now seeks protection from criminal charges in the Philippines. This comes as the International Criminal Court (ICC) has pursued an investigation against the leader for his extrajudicial killings during the drug war.

Furthermore, the corruption charges brought against the President as a result of his preference for Chinese companies during the pandemic will be another avenue he seeks to evade through a leadership that he backs. That being said, his corruption charges, becoming increasingly visible with elections around the corner, will likely force his predecessors away from a continuing economic relationship with China given the potential association the public would make with a corrupt China. 

As things stand, the Marcos–Duterte pair are overwhelmingly popular – commanding over half the popular vote – only a few months before the elections. It would appear as though the pair would carry a more balanced approach to Washington based on both public opinion surrounding China – which according to a 2020 survey concluded that the Philippine public had the most distrust for Beijing in relation to Washington – and its aggression in the South China Sea.

Moreover, it is likely that Marcos Jr. will extend the current incumbent’s strongman approach towards drugs in the country, stating the policy of engagement that the Duterte government is doing, although it is criticised, is the right way to go.” This is an indication not just of the continuity of Duterte’s authoritarian-esque tendencies, but also supports the possibility that a victory for the pair would protect the President from the ICC investigation, or potential extradition. 

However, the supposed benefits of a Marcos-Duterte victory is in jeopardy as a result of the petition by the Philippines Commission on Elections that is seeking to disqualify Marcos Jr from the running, as he was previously convicted of failing to file his tax returns in the 1980s. Moreover, there is some concern amongst the public that he would merely be an extension of his father and his dictatorial tendencies. Marcos Sr was renowned for his iron fist rule which lasted for two decades, during a period in which the regime plundered the treasury for about $10 billion.

Finally, by backing the pair Duterte would ultimately be forced to share power with another powerful family within the Philippines. All in all, this might explain why Duterte is yet to support the presidential pair so far. It may also be a cause for concern, not just for his prospects of continued influence within the government, but equally for his interest in avoiding legal charges. 

What is driving Rodrigo Duterte?

Answer: Despite his best efforts, Chinese aggression in the South China Sea has forced Duterte toward Washington and its allies. Economic interests, however, continue to provide China with tangible influence. 

As the US-China rivalry in Southeast Asia heats up, the May 2022 elections will be influential in the region’s balance of power. Despite Duterte’s best efforts to establish a relationship with China, recent months have seen Manila move to reinstate security ties with Washington in an attempt to deter Beijing. The most likely explanation for this shift away from China is its aggression in the South China Sea. In early 2020, for instance, China encircled the Thitu Islands in an attempt to prevent Philippine authorities from upgrading the island’s infrastructure.

This prompted Duterte to acknowledge, for the first time in four years, a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that rejected Beijing’s claims to disputed waters. Moreover, Duterte’s full endorsement of the AUKUS security pact, which reinforced Australia’s military power with the acquisition of nuclear submarines, underscores his move to form security alliances outside of China.

Access to the South China Sea is non-negotiable for the Philippines given that it accounts for around 27% of its fisheries production and is a major oil exploration site that enables its ability to achieve energy security. China’s ambitions in the region have ultimately left Duterte with little room to manoeuvre with respect to his economic relationship with Beijing. In other words, Duterte is faced with the challenge of balancing economic interests with China and security considerations that are largely fulfilled by Washington.

Duterte has simultaneously sought to reignite relations with Washington and its regional partners. The US and its allies have a considerable interest in the region, in particular the sovereignty of Taiwan, as well as the deterring of China’s ambition to monopolise key geostrategic islands. The support of the Philippines is vitally important to attaining them given its strategic location in the South China Sea.

Perhaps the most significant geostrategic development indicating the imminent shift away from Beijing was the move to implement the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement that Duterte previously froze in 2016. The agreement would afford the US military access to five Philippine bases that would reduce the US’ response time to any Chinese advances in the South China Sea. Similarly, new relationships in the region are brewing that are expected to further thwart China.

Earlier this year, Indonesia’s Maritime Security Agency invited the six most affected countries by China’s activities in the region to discuss the issue. With a meeting between the regional partners around the corner, it is likely that Duterte will strengthen efforts to counterbalance China in tandem with already existing ASEAN efforts. Moreover, Duterte has championed relationships with India, and most recently Japan’s Kishida – another pivotal player in the region – who Duterte is set to meet later this month. 

That being said, the President has to weigh the impact of China economically in his decision-making. The President’s pivot toward Beijing with a large infrastructure investment plan that encompasses flood controls and railways, which is underway, has entangled the Chinese with the Philippine economy. China remains the country’s top source of imports and the second-largest investor, being the top export market for Philippine electronic and agricultural goods.

The return to Washington, as a result, will not be entirely straightforward and could hinder medium-term economic growth in a country already crippled by the COVID19 pandemic. Hence, despite a more pronounced pro-Washington strategy in recent months, Duterte’s entanglement with China will mean that the Philippines will be constrained by Beijing even beyond its military activity in the South China Sea. 

Hence, China has left Duterte and his potential successor with little reason to lean toward Beijing. Despite this, however, it is likely that Manila will remain entangled with Beijing in the near future given its role in the economy. Simultaneously, Duterte’s shift back toward Washington in light of Chinese aggression suggests that security considerations precede economic ones. Therefore,  the Philippines appears to once again find itself in the middle of rapidly developing tensions between the US and China. Ultimately, the shift towards the US stemming from security imperatives will continue in the foreseeable future. 

What does this mean for you?

Answer: The Philippines is a key player in the regional balance of power. However, despite an apparent shift back toward Washington, the upcoming elections will determine whether or not Manila will continue to be accommodating of Beijing. 

Tensions in the region seem to be slowly approaching the boiling point, with both sides seeking to maximise their preparedness in the event of any further escalation. The Philippines remains a major player in determining the future balance of power in the region. The upcoming elections, therefore, set the stage for the next six years of foreign policy. 

The recent corruption scandal was perhaps the final nail in the coffin for Duterte’s inclination towards China. It made abundantly clear to the public that a relationship with Beijing is costly for the Philippines. Furthermore, Chinese aggression in the South China Sea has further forced the President away from Beijing and, naturally, towards Washington. In tandem, these factors suggest that Duterte’s successor will follow suit towards Washington and reinstate previously established agreements. This suggests that the US will once again strengthen ties with a historical ally in the region to counterbalance China. 

Regardless, Washington and its allies will certainly be relieved to see a revival of relations with Manila. However, despite positive indications in the recent past, they will be watching the elections closely as the fate of the power distribution hangs in the balance. Restricting China from controlling a major trade route, and establishing a potent naval force is a feat that will be made a lot less complicated with a Philippine President that favours Washington. 

Ahaan Rai

R&A Alumno