Sam Seitz

The Philippine’s new president Rodrigo Duterte has caused quite a stir among the American foreign policy elite. This is understandable, as Duterte has embraced aggressive populism and actively supports vigilante death squads nominally tasked with killing drug dealers. Duterte also seems to be attempting to reorient the Philippines away from the United States – its long-time ally – and toward China. Given that China represents the biggest challenge to the United States in the Asia-Pacific, it’s easy to understand why many in DC are frustrated and concerned by Duterte’s mercurial foreign policy that threatens to weaken Obama’s strategic rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. While these developments are certainly concerning, it is far from clear that Duterte’s presidency will precipitate any major change in relations between the U.S. and the Philippines.

The primary reason that Duterte is unlikely to seriously reorient Filipino foreign policy away from the U.S. is that this move would be at odds with both Filipino popular opinion and the views of elites in Manila. For example, 92% of Filipinos have a favorable view of the United States according to Pews Global Indicators Database. China, by contrast, has only a 54% approval rating in the Philippines. This doesn’t mean that Filipinos would necessarily oppose a pivot toward China. After all, Chinese President Xi Jinping is famous for providing generous loans and grants to countries friendly to China. However, high approval ratings for the U.S. suggest that a wholesale abandonment of the U.S.-Philippines alliance is simply not politically feasible. Indeed, a recent New York Times article revealed that even some of Duterte’s core supporters believe his pivot toward China to be misguided. It might be possible for Duterte to shift toward China on the margins, but a complete change in Filipino foreign policy seems highly improbable.

Elites also represent a major constraint on Duterte’s power. The military, in particular, is immensely supportive of the U.S.-Philippines alliance and would likely block any attempt by Duterte to meaningful damage military relations with the United States. Given that the Philippines has a history of coups, Duterte would be wise to take the military’s concerns seriously. Business leaders are also wary of Duterte’s cavalier approach toward the relationship with the U.S., and foreign investors are becoming increasingly unwilling to put money into the Philippines without knowing that political ties between it and the U.S. will remain cordial. Other American regional allies are also becoming concerned by Duterte’s volatile behavior. Japan, in particular, has been put in a tough position by Mr. Duterte. Tokyo is the principal regional power attempting to counterbalance China, as Japan sees increasing Chinese militarism as a major threat. Because Japan’s major regional ally is the United States, it has much to lose if the American alliance system in Asia begins to fray on account of Duterte’s shenanigans. Thus, we can expect Tokyo to use its massive trade leverage over the Philippines to moderate Duterte and ensure that he remains committed to the U.S.-Philippines alliance.

It’s also important to remember that the U.S. also possesses significant economic influence over the Philippines. As Gregory Poling recently explained over at War on the Rocks

The United States is the third-largest trading partner of the Philippines, after Japan and China. It is the number-two investor in the country, providing over one-fifth of foreign direct investment in 2013 while investment from China is negligible. It is also the largest source of remittances to the economy, thanks to the huge Filipino-American community, and a major provider of development assistance.

Thus, the idea that Duterte would be willing to seriously risk relations with the U.S. is quite hard to believe. Obviously the Philippines has much to gain by strengthening economic and political ties with Beijing. But if its outreach to China damages relations with the United States, the Philippines will lose far more than it receives.

What is perhaps most telling, though, is that Duterte has failed to actually commit to any firm position regarding China and the South China Sea. For instance, when Duterte recently visited Beijing, he announced that he would be willing to negotiate bilaterally with China over the SCS and proclaimed that he wanted a separation from the U.S. However, upon returning to Manila, he walked these statements back. Then, when Duterte visited Tokyo, he declared that he would be interested in conducting joint military exercises with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, China’s regional rival. In many ways, Duterte is like Trump. He makes absurd and unrealistic proclamations and levels accusations that are completely unhinged. However, when he’s confronted, he inevitably walks back his position or claims he was misunderstood.

Duterte very clearly represents a threat to the U.S. position in Asia, and it is certainly important that policymakers don’t become complacent. Initiatives designed to address and heal long-standing grievances over U.S. actions during its colonial rule of the Philippines would represent an important step in further strengthening the bond between the two countries. It is also important that the U.S. continue to remain calm when dealing with Duterte, as escalating over his petty insults will only serve to create rifts between the two countries and thus strengthen Duterte’s position. Fortunately, Obama and his team have maintained a calm and non-confrontational position regarding Duterte. The next president should continue this approach.

Nevertheless, it is far from clear that Duterte will ever have sufficient support to abandon America. The Philippines is simply too dependent on the U.S. both economically and militarily. Furthermore, the alliance and the U.S. more generally remain immensely popular throughout the Philippines. Thus, the danger posed by Duterte, while real, is likely overstated.