Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (left) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of People, Beijing, April 25, 2019. Photo: AFP / Kenzaburo Fukuhara / Pool

Rodrigo Duterte is at the halfway point of his presidency of the Philippines and since coming to power in 2016, he has made huge waves domestically and internationally for his tough talk and policies. The one policy that has defined his presidency is his signature war on drugs that has killed thousands and prompted fierce international criticism from Western countries and the United Nations.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivers his State of the Nation address at Congress in Manila on July 22, 2019. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

If one had judged Duterte by his overseas reception and assumed him to be equally unpopular domestically, they should realize there is nothing further from the truth. He is one of the most popular presidents in the history of his country. And the main reason behind his vast domestic support is his ability to fulfill the overwhelming desire among ordinary Filipinos for strong leadership to solve the myriad problems that plagued the nation for years prior to his election.

The country suffered from weak political leadership and persistent massive poverty despite huge economic growth. The poverty directly fueled the drug menace as many poor Filipinos smoked shabu or crystal methamphetamine to keep themselves from feeling hungry. Many were pushed into the drug trade to make a living, and this caused the country to be in the deep grip of a drug crisis that required a multifaceted solution.

Whether Duterte has succeeded in solving these problems is another matter altogether. What matters is that he is seen to be doing something about them.

One gift Duterte has endowed on his country that many Filipinos have yet to appreciate fully is his decision to realign the country away from the United States toward China. It is a shrewd move on his part, as China has risen, and it is important for the Philippines to be nimble and stay ahead of the game as it adjusts to the new power dynamic within the region.

With a rising China that has become more assertive in defending and advancing its interests, the Philippines’ previous policy of allying itself with the United States for its security is neither wise nor sustainable.

Not to forget, the United States under President Donald Trump has proved itself to be an unreliable partner. It has walked away from international treaties like the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Iran nuclear deal. It has repeatedly demanded – and succeeded on occasions – that allies like Japan and South Korea pay more for keeping US troops in their countries. Trump has repeatedly slammed American allies and said the US had incurred a huge cost protecting them and got nothing in return. He has persistently shown a dangerous ignorance of the historical and strategic values that allies in Europe, Asia and elsewhere provide to the United States.

The Trump administration has shown less inclination than previous administrations to uphold the US-based international order that was established in the aftermath of World War II. It has worked actively to undermine many of the institutions it built, such as the World Trade Organization by blocking the appointments of new judges, which has in essence caused the organization to grind to a halt. This is the very rule-based order that countries like the Philippines depend upon to survive and prosper.

And this is the very reason the Philippines referred the South China Sea dispute to a tribunal in The Hague. The court eventually ruled in favor of the Philippines in 2016, but the ruling has been in essence ignored by China to no consequence.

The hard truth is that the US-built rule-based international order prior to 2016 was defective and not having its intended effects. The reason is very simple, as the United States set a bad precedent by refusing to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The convention in essence lists a set of international laws governing the passage of ships through international waters and respecting the rights of countries’ territorial waters. The United States refused to bind itself to the convention and yet it demands that other countries adhere to international laws. This bad precedent gave China the excuse it needed not to follow the convention, as it also wished to ignore international norms and rules to its convenience without facing real consequences.

This is the typical behavior of all big powers even as they try to portray an image of adhering to international laws. There is a saying from Thucydides, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” If you apply this to countries, big countries are the strong ones and they can afford to ignore treaties and norms whenever it is convenient. But these international treaties and rulings are life and death to smaller countries like the Philippines. China knows these international institutions lack real teeth when the sole superpower, the United States, has no regard for them and no country in the world has the ability and the will to sanction it for its violations of laws.

Hence the US-based international order has been defective for many years as all big powers ignore international treaties and rulings when they are perceived to be against their own interests. The sad truth is that since 2017, the US-built multilateral system has come under serious strain as the United States embarked on a sharply different path than before the Trump era.

So as the US disengages itself from the world while fighting a harsh trade war with China, it is paramount for the Philippines to align itself toward China and ensure its interests are maintained in the new power dynamic in the Asia-Pacific region.

While many observers slammed Duterte for not standing up to China when one of its ships sank a Philippine vessel in June, the hard truth is that the Philippine military is no match for the modern sophisticated Chinese military and the United States is not going to come in to help the Philippines. Hence the best strategy is to be friendly with China by setting aside such disputes for the greater good. This approach has understandably caused many to be unhappy, but it is the best approach for the Philippines.

It is also important for one to know that despite improving ties, the Philippines will not be a firm ally of China. President Duterte is in essence aligning the country to the middle ground between the US and China. He is playing both sides, which could be seen when his administration reviewed and renewed its defense treaty with the US. The renewal came despite occasional anti-US remarks by Duterte.

And this strategy has become very effective in the light of the bitter US-China trade war. China is racing to win more allies and it doesn’t want the Philippines to join the side of the US. This is why China pressured its fishermen to issue a rare apology to the Philippines days ahead of Duterte’s state visit to country.

And this new approach also prompted the US to take the Philippines more seriously as it is dismayed to see its former close security ally drifting away from its orbit. The US should learn not to take its allies for granted and the only way to do bring this about is to send a signal to the Americans that they can switch sides at any time.

By playing two sides, Duterte has extracted maximum benefits for his country and it is the new and only way forward for the country’s foreign policy in the years to come.

Maa Zhi Hong

Maa Zhi Hong is a political analyst in Singapore who has written for Today, Asia Times, the South China Morning Post and Nikkei Asian Review. His official Instagram account is @maazhihongofficial.

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