In a remarkable departure from his often-rambunctious rhetoric, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte hosted this week's summit of Asian and global leaders in a surprisingly statesmanlike fashion.
Even the showpiece of the gathering -- a convivial hobnob and constructive discussion between with U.S. President Donald Trump -- passed off without the two tough-talking leaders resorting to any of their familiar unpredictable behavior or belligerent rhetoric.
But Duterte's success in stage-managing his country's biggest political meeting in years and highlighting his friendship with Trump, should not obscure the fact that the real strategic winner from the meeting was neither the Philippines, nor even the U.S. -- but China.
The Asian powerhouse managed to charm the broader neighborhood with an alluring package of economic initiatives amid America's precipitous withdrawal from regional free trade agreements.
Beijing also skillfully convinced Duterte to downplay the South China Sea maritime disputes, provoked by China's growing military assertiveness, while expanding its reach with impunity. The upshot is the emergence of an increasingly post-America regional order with Chinese characteristics.
Trump described his Asia trip as "tremendously successful," but in reality it reinforced growing doubts over American leadership in the region. Trump's visit to Tokyo and Seoul was a painful exercise in strategic reassurance, with no clear breakthrough on areas of common concern, particularly North Korea.
In China, Trump was visibly humbled by his host's refusal to budge on any key area of interest, from the North Korean crisis to the South China Sea disputes.
In the past, Trump consistently accused China of exploiting America's economic openness and even, during his election campaign, of manipulating its currency. He has also blamed Beijing for fomenting trouble in the Asian neighborhood. During his visit, however, he embarrassingly ended up giving China "great credit" for taking "advantage of another country [America] for the benefit of its own citizens."
On North Korea, he shunned directly criticizing China and beseeched Beijing to place greater pressure on Pyongyang. During his attendance at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam, the American president looked isolated.
His attack on economic globalization and endorsement of bilateral "fair" trade irked many regional states, which bet heavily on the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. In a remarkable break with Trump, who effectively nixed the TPP deal, key allies such as Japan and Australia are preparing an alternative trading agreement that excludes the U.S, even though they are leaving the door open for Washington.
The mega-gathering in Manila, focused on the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, represented the last leg of Trump's much-ballyhooed Asia trip -- and his last chance to win back lost influence. Not least in the Philippines.
Trump spent a whole night next to Duterte during the ASEAN gala dinner on Nov. 12, exchanging smiles and songs and pleasantries, while holding a cordial bilateral summit with the Filipino leader the following day. This was a far cry from the days of the administration of Barack Obama, when Duterte openly lashed out, cussed and snubbed his American counterpart.
Trump largely shunned raising concerns over Duterte's scorched-earth drug war and instead focused on areas of common concern, namely counter-terrorism and North Korea. As a result, Trump managed to arrest the hemorrhage in Philippine-U.S. bilateral alliance, restoring a measure of normality to a relationship recently troubled by disagreements over human rights issues.
However, his last-minute decision to skip the broader East Asia Summit, which followed the ASEAN meeting and brought together a wider range of world powers, was not received too well.
Much more importantly, Trump failed to win back Duterte to America's side. The Filipino leader still seems committed to deepening bilateral relations with China, which has offered huge economic incentives in exchange for the strategic acquiescence of its smaller neighbors.
No wonder that, Duterte, who oversaw the drafting of the ASEAN joint statement, refused to take a tough stance on the South China Sea disputes. Instead, he emphasized the necessity of continuous negotiations over a Code of Conduct (COC), the framework of which was finalized during the summit.
Yet, the proposed COC blatantly disregards the Philippines' own landmark arbitration award against China, as well as the Chinese expansionism, which lies at the heart of the South China Sea conundrum.
Since coming to power, Duterte has also canceled bilateral war games with the U.S. in the South China Sea, meant to deter Chinese naval assertiveness. Despite the constructive dialogue with Trump, it's unlikely that Duterte will change his mind.
Instead, he is expanding security cooperation with America in areas that are not directly detrimental to Beijing, in counter-terrorism, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. This way, Duterte hopes to have the cake of American security assistance and also eat Chinese economic carrots.
Far from clarifying America's position on the maritime disputes, or even reiterating its willingness to check China's ambitions, Trump made a half-facetious offer to act as a mediator.
The Trump administration's biggest handicap, however, is its failure to put forward any meaningful trade and investment initiative in a region, where economics tends to top government agendas, including Duterte's.
Meanwhile, China is backing an appealing package of economic projects, ranging from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
While many Asian countries rightly continue to harbor suspicions toward Beijing, and welcome continued American regional leadership, they may soon find themselves with little choice but to bow to Chinese hegemony.
Richard Heydarian is an Asia-based scholar and the author of, among others, "Asia's New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific" and "The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy."
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