The Philippines’ tilt away from Washington towards Beijing shows how US power is waning
Rodrigo Duterte, who proudly bears the nickname Duterte Harry, has been given a hero’s welcome in Beijing. The president of the Philippines may be a foul-mouthed renegade — he called Barack Obama the “son of a whore” and told the United Nations to “f*** off and shut up” — but he has become China’s favourite. To the Chinese he is a prodigal son who has all but renounced his country’s long-established alliance with the US and taken their shilling. Welcome, Mr Duterte, to China’s expanding club of useful idiots.
The remarkable Filipino flip highlights the steady decline of the US, its inability to hang on even to an ally of 70 years’ standing, and the rise of China as it goes about purchasing rather than charming its neighbours. In Asia a tipping point has been reached. It’s not just the eagerness of the Philippine leader to trouser $24 billion of investment and financing deals in return for announcing its “separation” from the US. Thailand, fed up with US criticism of its military junta, is starting a submarine fleet with Chinese help. Cambodia is getting billions of dollars of Chinese military and civil aid in return for toning down criticism of China’s territorial ambitions from within Asean, Asia’s regional grouping.
Across the western world we are faced with a similar conundrum to that facing Asia. Is an ascending China such a serious menace to the established order that it has to be contained, boxed in and made to bend to our rules? Or is it simply (and legitimately) using its diplomatic muscle to secure and expand its economy? The question infiltrates all levels of policy: energy decisions that invite strategically dubious Chinese investment in the British and Australian electricity grids; the Chinese purchase of a sensitive German semiconductor maker; the planned acquisition of a hotel site in San Diego, very close to the home port of the US Pacific fleet.
The Chinese embrace of Mr Duterte should form part of this sceptical appraisal. We can be pretty sure that the realignment does not stem from personal chemistry with President Xi, who has no love of mavericks. A self-confessed hitman at a recent Philippine senate hearing testified that Mr Duterte had been aware of death squads which, among other things, fed victims to crocodiles. President Xi’s most daring public act has been to drink a pint of IPA with David Cameron.
Part of Mr Duterte’s resentment at the US and human rights groups is their criticism of his current war on drugs, which since his election in May has seen 3,800 drug peddlers and abusers shot dead in the streets by vigilante gangs. Though Mr Duterte denies any connection with the thugs, his “make my day” Clint Eastwood style has earned him his Duterte Harry label.