Watch the Duterte space

A colorful character that can make our Lalloo Prasad look stale and sober, Rodrigo Duterte has taken over Philippines as its President. The web is full of his hilarious and often offensive remarks so let us not waste any time discussing them. Many of them are about as sensible as a drunk garrulous taxi driver’s.

But then he is President of a nation and what he says and does impacts not only his country but others too. So his recent “break” with the United States, announced in China during a state visit, if carried out even partially will have profound impact.

Basically what he is saying is that US is a has-been, too arrogant and lecturing and unable or unwilling to help his country in its development. So he wants to turn to China the new Don in town. Interestingly similar comments were also made by a prominent Pakistani diplomat recently in the US, where he blatantly threatened Americans that Pakistan may “turn” to China or Russia. As if that is something new!

In fact many leftists in India have been arguing that instead of challenging China’s hegemony in Asia or even South Asia, India should learn to live with it, accept its overwhelming superiority and find ways to benefit from its rise. Be obedient and reap rewards.

There are many domestic and personal compulsions that propel Duterte’s open hostility to US and warm embrace of China. It appears he too suffered visa denials (1) and bad treatment at LAX airport in the past. Ethnic Chinese tycoons control practically all of Philippines economy and are a powerful. It is said that the indigenous populace, deeply suspicious of China and more wannabe American than Ronald McDonald will not support this switch.

Be that as it may, India should watch the space carefully. Two things may happen:

1. Duterte’s overture to China will result in good bargains for Philippines in its various disputes with China as well as economically. China will be generous to its “subjects” and give away more than it otherwise would. Projects and investments will flow not merely to fill order books of factories in China but benefit locals.

2. China will simply use this surrender as an example to arm twist other recalcitrant and fence sitters and drive hard bargains or worse, humiliate even more. Real gains to the Philippines at least in the short and medium term will be marginal.

As China goes about writing big cheques that may or may not bounce (well over $100b at last count (2) ), India should keep a watch on these developments. Given the experience of East Africans and others like Cambodia, this manna from heaven may come with side effects.

May be the lefties are right. May be they aren’t.


  2. $24b to BD, $15 to Egypt, $48b to Pakistan, $15b to Philippines counting only the recent ones.