July 16, 2017 12:00 pm JST
Richard Heydarian

Duterte in strategic sweet spot after year in power

At home and abroad, firebrand president continues to shape the agenda

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has entered his second year in office in an unrivaled position of power. After a hectic diplomatic schedule, visiting 17 countries in less than a year, Duterte has also managed to establish new strategic partnerships, particularly with China, which he has visited twice in recent months. Shared concerns over transnational terrorism, however, have also brought Duterte and Western partners, particularly the U.S., closer together. As a result, the Philippines is in a strategic sweet spot, where it enjoys fruitful relations with all major Asia-Pacific powers.

As chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Duterte will likely continue to promote his brand of politics, which emphasizes law-and-order at home and closer economic ties with China abroad. Meanwhile, he will continue sidelining thorny issues such as the South China Sea disputes in regional conversations.

In the past year, the tough-talking leader moved from one crisis to the other, yet remained almost politically unscathed. Duterte has not only maintained sky-high approval ratings, but also managed to increase his support base in recent months. According to the latest survey by Philppine polling group Social Weather Stations, as many as 78% of Filipinos approve of the president's performance.

Duterte has also strengthened his grip on other branches of the state. His decision to declare martial law across his home island of Mindanao -- in response to the threat of groups affiliated to Islamic State, who laid siege to Marawi, the country's largest Muslim-majority city -- has received a crucial nod from the country's highest court.

Earlier in July, 11 out of 15 justices of the Supreme Court endorsed the president's controversial decision, which initially received lukewarm support from top defense officials and has been heavily criticized by civil society groups, the political opposition and even Duterte's left-wing allies.

Three other justices, including Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, sought a more geographically limited application of draconian emergency powers. Only one justice, Marvic Leonen, dissented, arguing that the siege of Marawi represented a terror attack rather than a rebellion or invasion, which are the constitutional requirements for declaring martial law in the Philippines.

Executive supremacy

Crucially, the Supreme Court gave Duterte virtual carte blanche in applying martial law, which among other things suspends the writ of habeas corpus for suspected terrorists. They affirmed executive supremacy by giving the president "wide leeway and flexibility in determining the territorial scope of martial law," maintaining that its strict application to the epicenter of rebellion alone, namely Marawi, would render it "ineffective and useless."

The legislature, where Duterte boasts a super-majority coalition, is almost certain to extend the martial law proclamation beyond its 60-day limit, which is set to expire by July 22. Pantaleon Alvarez, the powerful speaker of the lower house, is advocating the extension of the emergency powers until the end of Duterte's term of office. The president can also count on growing public support on the issue.

In a March survey by polling agency Pulse Asia, as many as 74% of Filipinos opposed the proclamation of martial law as a potential solution to the country's security conundrum, including protracted Islamist and communist insurgencies. But public opinion has shifted dramatically in recent weeks, mainly due to growing anxiety over the specter of IS and fear of terror contagion across Mindanao and beyond.

Aside from enjoying solid domestic support, Duterte has also managed to maintain robust relations with both traditional allies such as the U.S., as well as new strategic partners, namely China. In Mindanao, the Duterte administration is relying on American high-grade intelligence, advanced weaponry and training, and drones to coordinate the urban warfare campaign in Marawi, which has entered its second month.

The two allies on June 30 also conducted joint maritime patrols in the Sulu Sea to stave off threats from the Abu Sayyaf Group, another IS-affiliated jihadist franchise, which has engaged in widespread piracy and terrorism in the area. The high-profile exercise saw the Philippines' flagship frigate BRP Ramon Alcaraz sailing alongside the USS Coronado, a littoral combat ship, in an unmistakable sign of institutionalized military cooperation.

Chinese assistance

Yet, eager to avoid overdependence on Washington, Duterte has also sought Chinese defense assistance under his "independent" foreign policy approach. Hailing what Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi described as a "golden period of fast development" in bilateral relations, Beijing has offered an unprecedented $12 million defense aid package to the Philippines. This is mainly composed of weapons that could be used for both counter-terrorism and domestic law enforcement. In May China offered a $500 million loan to the Philippines' armed forces during the Belt and Road Initiative summit in Beijing.

The two sides are also negotiating agreements which will facilitate regular intelligence-sharing and joint military exercises between the two former adversaries in the South China Sea. Beijing is aggressively courting the Philippine military, which enjoys huge influence within Duterte's government and continues to see Washington as an indispensable strategic partner.

Eager to keep the generals on-side, Duterte has appointed as many as seven former and current armed forces' chiefs of staff to cabinet positions. Leveraging his enhanced domestic political position and relishing functional ties with both superpowers, an emboldened Duterte will likely stick to his current foreign policy position.

In the South China Sea, Manila will focus on bilateral rather than multilateral solutions. Duterte has made it clear that he prefers a "soft landing" with China on territorial and maritime disputes so that the two sides can focus on trade and investment. China is expected to play a key role in Duterte's ambitious infrastructure development plan, dubbed "Dutertenomics," which will likely include the reconstruction of post-conflict Marawi.

As ASEAN chairman, Duterte will continue to set aside the Philippines' landmark arbitration case at The Hague, which last year nullified the bulk of China's expansive claims in the area. Rather than confronting China on the issue of reclamation and militarization of disputed islands, Manila is expected to focus on ongoing negotiations over a code of conduct. While downgrading sensitive issues such as the South China Sea disputes, Duterte will likely stick to promoting issues closer to his heart, particularly regional connectivity as well as a "drug-free ASEAN" vision.

In recent months, Duterte has emphasized not only the importance of economic development, but also the central role of China in spurring region-wide infrastructure development under the Maritime Silk Road initiative, part of the wider Belt and Road project. Manila has also been promoting its heavy-handed anti-drugs campaign as a potential model for the broader region, as ASEAN governments shift their attention to law-and-order issues, including drug-trafficking. Overall, a secure and confident Duterte will continue to shape the regional agenda in his own image, with China as its biggest immediate beneficiary.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and columnist. He is the author of "Asia's New Battlefield: U.S., China and the Struggle for the Western Pacific," and the forthcoming book "Rise of Duterte."

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