Is Rodrigo Duterte a Canary in the Coalmine?

Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines' acerbic president, may be written off as a kook but is his behavior indicative of waning American power in Asia?

The United States is aghast at Rodrigo Duterte, president of their stalwart ally, the Philippines. He has called president Barack Obama a son of a whore, cancelled joint military drills, and announced that he will separate his country’s foreign (and now defense) policy with the United States’. Although it’s easy to write him off as a kook, Duterte might well be the canary in the coalmine about the coming state of the global balance of power.

There is no shortage of theories about the decline of the United States and the rise of China. Whatever one’s position, it’s undeniable that the US’s power, if it’s not decreasing in absolute terms, is being mitigated, not least by China. And, not surprisingly, the Chinese are using their increasing influence to assert themselves, at the very least, as a regional hegemon, a status they previously held for millennia.

Until now, it made sense for the Philippines to maintain its very strong ties with the United States. As a former colony of the superpower and situated in a geographically strategic location in the South China Sea, it enjoyed a privileged status that led to significant American military aid and cooperation, as well as investment. This was useful to counterbalance the growing power of the Chinese. But, as it’s distracted itself with Pyrrhic wars in the Middle East, the United States has huffed and puffed but it’s done little to protect US allies from new threats in Asia. Most notably, China has reclaimed its position as a regional military power and, more disconcerting in the near term, North Korea has developed functioning nuclear weapons.

Given Chinese imperial history, its aggressive claims of sovereignty over land and sea including the Senkaku Islands (claimed by Japan), Taiwan, and the South China Sea, and its continued support of the antagonistic North Koreans, many of China’s neighbors are looking askance at its rise. Indeed, it seems China is less concerned with allaying the concerns of neighboring states and more concerned with reprising that which it considers to be its rightful property.

The United States was well aware of potential threats to the world order emanating from Asia after a rapidly industrialized and bellicose Japan attacked it during World War II. It wasn’t long after that the US was again militarily engaged in Asia, fighting in the Korean War. Like in Europe, the United States didn’t let these good crises go to waste and sought to temper future wars by impressing its military upon the land. It worked — for a time.

Its own proxy wars with the Soviet Union notwithstanding, the United States’ role as a pacifier in Asia and Europe was encouraging: the Europeans stopped killing each other for the first time in centuries, the Koreas stopped fighting, the Chinese and Japanese stopped fighting, and China didn’t invade Taiwan. Indochina was admittedly the exception, highlighted by the horrendous violence of the Cambodian Genocide and the Vietnam War, which crept into other parts of the region. But these were more or less contained to the peninsula and the rest of Southeast Asia remained peaceful. In fact, during this peace in Asia, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, and Thailand became successful, industrialized economies.

The byproduct of this peace and accompanying prosperity was a China focused intently on economic growth without the distraction of conflict. The United States, busy with containing the powerful Soviet Union, spent far less time and effort on containing China; while the Soviet Union had to deal with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), China had no such concern. Then, after the fall of the USSR, rather than immediately recalibrating American foreign and military policy toward Asia, America continued spending valuable resources in Europe, expanding NATO, and trying and failing to do with Russia what it did with the rest of Eastern Europe. All the while, China steadily chipped away at its aim to reemerge as a superpower.

Although America maintains a military presence in Japan, South Korea, and Singapore to this day, its flaccid approach to maintaining the upper hand in Asia has left allies worried. Whereas in decades past Japan was content to depend on the American military, it has recently increased spending on its own military — going on five straight years — suggesting that it is not satisfied to leave the defense of its borders and interests solely to the United States. The Republic of China, better known as Taiwan, with a population a quarter the size of the Philippines, spends over $15 billion on its military; the South Koreans and Japanese spend over $30 billion and $50 billion a year, respectively; and Singapore, a city-state of under 6 million people, has a military budget of over $10 billion.

The Philippines, by contrast, is militarily weak and impoverished. Although it has twice the population of South Korea, it has only 1/7th as many active personnel (and many fewer reservists). Compared to other countries potentially threatened by the rise of China, the Philippines spends a paltry $3 billion.

It is conceivable, then, that Duterte, taking into account his country’s comparatively low GDP and martial capability, America’s military tepidity in Asia, and a more aggressive China, is trying to head off the coming storm by realigning his country while China is still looking for friends. Unlike many other Asian countries, he has chosen to not see China as a foe and instead of antagonizing the giant, he has chosen to situate the Philippines under the dragon’s wing. If Duterte’s bet pans out, his cold calculus could be rewarded as China’s power grows and it feels a need to buttress friendly countries like the Philippines as a counterbalance to its American-backed opponents. It may even lead to other states it is even more assertive with the Japanese, Taiwanese, and other nearby states.

Even if the Philippines end up not benefiting as much Duterte thinks, it is telling that a weak country trades its sturdy relationship with the world’s only superpower for an up-and-comer.

Originally published at Politics &.