Duterte’s Long Game in Four Scenarios

Sometimes you make predictions that you hope were wrong. One such prediction was my Red Dawn at Malacañang essay, written just after Duterte won the presidency in the 2016 election. What I saw at that time was extraordinary: a Filipino leader that didn’t seem very committed to pressing Philippine claims in the South China Sea, who thought that the UNCLOS arbitration was a waste of time, and seemed friendlier with China and the communist New People’s Army (NPA) than the United States. It takes courage and a stamina of will for a Filipino president to stand up against China, and Duterte displayed neither.

Over the past two weeks, Duterte shifted his focus from his domestic fixation with extrajudicial killings to foreign policy. He began this pivot by calling Obama a “son of a whore” [or maybe not] and threats to curse him should Obama bring the extrajudicial killings up as a topic of conversation. Obama joked about how ‘colorful’ Duterte was, and canceled a scheduled meeting after questioning how productive it would be.

Duterte responded by intentionally skipping the US-ASEAN dialogue meeting and using another session to lambast US colonial abuses in the Philippines almost a century ago. He then traveled to Indonesia where he gave the same photo-assisted lecture about US colonial abuses in Mindanao and then mocked US military assistance ($140m a year) to the Philippines. He wrongly claimed that the two jet fighters South Korea had recently delivered were American. Dismissing the FA-50‘s lack of armaments, he seemed not to understand that an air force that hasn’t had a functioning fighter/bomber since 2005 needs training aircraft before the next ten are delivered.

He wasn’t finished. In the past three days, he said that US advisors need to leave Mindanao, that Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Navy vessels won’t participate in joint patrols with the US, said that the Philippines doesn’t need any jet aircraft, and was starting discussions with the Chinese and Russians for arms purchases. All of this has now being enshrined as part of his new doctrine for an “independent” foreign policy, and his political allies are suggesting scrapping defense treaties and agreements with the US.

This raises questions about what Duterte’s intentions are. Listed below are the four scenarios I think are most likely. They are not mutually exclusive and the truth might be a mixture of one or more scenarios. For instance, flawed assumptions about the state of the AFP (Scenario 1) and the nature of the US-Philippines relationship (Scenario 4) might be exacerbated by ‘unforced errors’ (Scenario 1).

Scenario 1: Trump’s Razor

We should first consider there is no larger plan or goal and that “Trump’s Razor” applies: the dumbest answer that explains the observed phenomena is probably correct. Trump’s Razor would assume that Duterte just has a big mouth and no self-control, committed diplomatic malpractice and is now doubling down with a cascading series of unforced errors. This is expressed in other ways, like saying that “Duterte has no foreign policy.” Some have floated the idea that this is all just posturing to get a better deal with the United States.

A corollary to this would be radical ideas like treachery here: maybe he is ‘Beijing’s Man’ in Manila. A milder form would be to say that, like Trump, he is an “an unwitting agent” of a foreign government (the Chinese Communist Party). I include this in the ‘Trump’s Razor’ category because, if true, it would eventually be uncovered and likely sink his presidency. The Philippine public has a higher tolerance for garden variety corruption than selling out to geopolitical rivals. In short, it would be incredibly dumb if all this ruckus could be traced back to Chinese money.

Scenario 2: Quitting While Behind

Assuming Duterte is a rational actor – that there’s a method to the madness – let me propose Scenario 2. If you piece together different things Duterte has said, one theme that emerges is that he believes the Philippines is hopelessly outgunned by the China, and there is virtually no way to catch up and offer a credible deterrence. Indeed, the AFP is in only just recovering from an advanced state of decay after decades of neglect. Aquino’s AFP Modernization Act pales in comparison to advances the Chinese have made. At the end of the day, the AFP is starting almost from scratch and China is a threat to the United States. The 2015 PLA budget is about half the size of the 2015 Philippine GDP ($146 billion vs. $291 billion).

And yet this thinking is off the mark by a wide margin. Scenario 2 assumes Duterte has outdated thinking, believing that the AFP is in the same state of disrepair in 2016 as it was in 2010. The Aquino strategy that Duterte is turning his back on was more nuanced and sophisticated than this reading. First, there is a very real difference between having essentially no modern military and having a small one. Philippine naval vessels are chased out of areas by Chinese fishing boats because they have no backup to call on. Even a handful of budget fighters at Clark and Palawan is more than the PLA can bring that far south. The Chinese also have a history of backing down when even a little muscle is flexed. For instance, a 2014 incident at Ayungin – wherein the Chinese were trying to prevent resupplies and sailor rotations – was diffused when a US Navy P-81 made low passes.

Aquino’s strategy also brought in international actors and allies. The UNCLOS ruling gave the Philippines a massive symbolic and moral victory. Aquino also brought back limited US basing and more exercises. US Navy P-8 Poseidon‘s were stationed at Clark, for instance, which for the first time gave the Philippine government a real-time window into what was happening in the South China Sea. It is hard to overstate how much help this is. Without American support, the AFP must rely on aging OV-10 Bronco aircraft for reconnaissance 2. Lacking even radar, they are limited to visual surveillance. It was never intended for maritime patrol.

The FA-50’s Duterte mocks come with an Israeli EL/M-2032 radar, with a range of 150km. A modern radar like this, when matched with a high-speed fighter jet, can provide military and political leaders real-time information on what is happening where in the disputed seas. Without this very basic military capability, it is impossible for anyone at Malacañang to react to any Chinese provocation until days or weeks afterward. With this information, the AFP can move its limited assets into position before an incident begins. Signaling that a provocation won’t go unchallenged is a giant leap in deterring future provocations.

Obama and Aquino worked together to strengthen ties with neighbors like Japan and Vietnam, the former of which is now donating ships to the Philippine Navy. We saw the beginnings of a loose but coordinated regional bloc, backed by a very favorable UN ruling, aimed at taming the excesses of Chinese aspirations. The Philippines, at long last, was setting a course to become a modern middle-income country capable of defending it’s territorial integrity without relying solely on the largesse of neighbors or its former colonizer.

It is also worth considering how and why the Philippines got into this mess. China did not bully Vietnam like they did the Philippines, despite their disputed islands being closer to the Chinese mainland. China targeted the Philippines because they could act with near impunity. When the Scarborough Shoal incident happened, the Philippine Navy’s flagship vessel dispatched to deal with the situation was World War II-era relic with no modern weapons. Should a war have broken out, it would have lasted only seconds.3

Scenario 3: Authoritarian Nationalism

Scenario 3 starts with the premise that “all politics are local.” Let’s assume that Duterte is moving the Philippines in a more authoritarian direction, something like ‘Marcos Lite.’ In the face of economic woes and inevitable losses in the South China Sea, Duterte makes a play at igniting leftist nationalism for the masses (see: Hugo Chavez). Rather than ‘losing’ to China, the Philippines has ‘stood up’ to America.

The intellectual and propaganda groundwork has already been laid by the Philippine hard left. Where almost anyone paying attention sees China bullying the Philippines, they see a vast conspiracy in which America has been using the Philippines (and her territorial claims) as bait to spawn a confrontation with China. It’s essentially Cold War 2.0: the US doesn’t care at all about the Philippines or ‘freedom of navigation’, the Pentagon wishes to ‘contain’ China and the Philippines offers a southern bulwark, and [something] imperialism! This nationalism would be self-reinforcing, as the deleterious diplomatic and economic blowback would prove the existence of this conspiracy.

I am skeptical that a leftist nationalism could take root in the Philippines at a large scale. However, it might provide cover and energy for his most fervent supporters to shut down debates and harass critics.

Scenario 4: Maoist Miscalculation

Scenario 4 is Scenario 3 Lite, mixed in with a Trump’s Razor. It posits that the geriatric president of the Philippines received most of his political education from books like Guerrero’s Philippine Society and Revolution. Guerrero’s Maoist interpretation of the Philippine-US relationship was not entirely wrong. Instead, its useful shelf-life expired when the Berlin Wall fell.

Duterte would be making miscalculations were he to be operating with the assumptions of the Philippine hard left. The biggest miscalculation would come in the form of understanding the relative importance of the Philippines to the United States. To Maoists like Guerrero, US economic and military hegemony requires the exploitation of countries like the Philippines. The US needs a friendly government and military bases in the Philippines to exert power in the rest of Southeast Asia. Following this interpretation, enlightened leftist leaders can usurp this power for themselves and The People (the foreign policy equivalent of ‘seizing the means of production’).

That might have true in the late 1960’s when Lyndon Johnson leaned on the Philippines to provide the eastern flank of his assault on North Vietnam. It was also at least a little bit true in the 1980s when Marcos convinced Reagan that the NPA threat was so large as to constitute a US national security threat. Clark and Subic were critical to US interests in the region to fall into Soviet hands. Indeed, Marcos was able to extract a lot from the US by recognizing how crucial Subic and Clark were to the Vietnam war.

But Obama is not Reagan and 2016 is not 1985. American foreign policy in the region is far more nuanced, respectful of sovereignty, and aware of painful histories. To see America’s policy towards China as ‘containment‘ is to misunderstand what the word meant when applied to Soviet adventurism. Cold War doctrines like containment meant that every US foreign policy decision was filtered through the lens of whether it slowed the spread of communism (which were arriving in the form of Soviet-back4 insurgencies5 or outright invasion6. Concerns about Marcos and martial law were subordinate to how Marcos fit into the larger American anti-communist strategy.

It is very likely Duterte fundamentally misunderstands the asymmetry in the current US-Philippines alliance. Right now, these treaty obligations are more of a liability than an asset to the US. The situation would be different if Luzon were once again the Okinawa of Southeast Asia. But it isn’t. The current basing agreements are barely sufficient to help the AFP defend Philippine sovereignty. Aside from terrorism, there is no other security threat in the region to the United States.

Arguably, the Pentagon would be happier with Duterte signing a bad deal with China that demilitarizes the South China Sea than staying on the current course. Were Duterte to withdraw from the US alliance system, the US would have little to no interest in challenging most of China’s South China Sea behavior. While the US has a keen interest in ensuring that the South China Sea doesn’t become a ‘Chinese lake,’ it is very unlikely the US will put more effort and energy into this project than regional powers do.

What The Future Holds

Philippine leaders would be wise to pay attention to rising isolationist trends in the United States. Look no further than foreign policy platform of Donald Trump as evidence. Upwards of 45% of American voters are lining up to support an anti-NATO, anti-interventionist, anti-alliance candidate. To take him at his word, a President Trump would reverse the military aid flowing into the Philippines. He would demand that Duterte ‘pay up’ for US protection. To say that this is not the time to tempt fate is an understatement.

They should also take stock of the situation on the Russian borderlands. The US has not taken a stronger stance on issues like Crimea than regional allies like Germany are willing to take (preventing, for instance, an influx of weapons for the Ukrainian military). At the same time, NATO allies in the Baltic states who appreciate American assistance (and ask for more) have found sympathetic and agreeable friends in Washington. Note, too, how willing the United States is to compromise the territorial integrity of non-allied countries (like Ukraine) if it holds the possibility of bringing peace.

Duterte’s current course risks leaving the Philippines in a double bind. By veering away from AFP modernization and questioning the value of pressing South China Sea claims, he will find American foreign policy recalibrating in response by similarly deemphasizing Philippine territorial disputes. America will not be more committed to the South China Sea than the Philippines is. By insulting US leaders and questioning the value of the alliance, he will likely find more canceled meetings, and fewer returned his calls, should he one day re-appraise his stance. Disinterest in the South China Sea and military modernization, hostility and skepticism towards America and American leaders, and an unbinding of treaty protections favors worst-case scenarios for the Philippines.

Of final consideration, Obama’s ‘lame duck’ administration and (should she win) a Clinton administration almost certainly understands and appreciate the long and unique relationship between the US and the Philippines. They and their advisors are aware that Duterte is taking the country on a ride voters neither anticipated or endorsed. The most difficult question going forward will be how to arrange the carrots and sticks in a way that penalizes Duterte for poor decisions without (a) hurting the Philippine people or (b) creating the conditions for a larger anti-American backlash. How, exactly, does one deal with a country that observes a Filipino-American Friendship Day but whose government is increasingly careless and hostile?

  1. The P-8 is a commercial airliner airframe fitted with sensors, torpedoes, and a few missiles.
  2. hand-me-down’s from the Vietnam War
  3. Approximately the length of time for a Chinese supersonic anti-ship missile to travel from its silo to the hull of the BRP Gregorio del Pilar.
  4. It should be noted that one of the causes of the Vietnam War was an American miscalculation that *all* communist insurgencies were Soviet-backed. China and Vietnam were both more autonomous than assumed at the time.
  5. Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, China, Cuba, etc.
  6. Korea, Taiwan, South Vietnam, Germany 


  1. James Braun said:

    Thanks for the intel. i wa saying dirty was communist back in Jan. I was right . I know he will bring down the filippines even further if that’s possible . I have a fairly good idea he will do the same thing obary is doing to the US to bring us down financially . Far too many live on the edge right now , if the gov. does anything it will quickly be the end . The chinese are somewhat already here , just look at the stuff we buy . The filippines makes nothing of substance on its own .

    September 15, 2016
  2. cj said:

    Time will tell if you are right or not, but you could sell this to supposedly real papers looking for some insight into this. Well done.

    September 15, 2016

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