By Lin Shaowen
The Philippine President never fails to amaze, amuse or even puzzle the world when he speaks.
A week ago, on September 5th, Rodrigo Duterte turned furious over US pressuring on his crackdown upon drug trafficking and warning against "extrajudicial killings". People heard him "cursing" President Barack Obama as a "son of a whore", who would then only describe him as "a colourful man" making "colourful statements". That resulted in the US cancelling a meeting between the two leaders when they attended ASEAN sponsored-conferences in Vientiane, capital of Laos.
The next day, September 6th, he expressed regrets through a spokesman, echoing Obama's view that relations between the allies are strong, saying that "our primary intention is to chart an independent foreign policy while promoting closer ties with all nations, especially the US, with which we have had a longstanding partnership." But Duterte continued to express anger at US "lecturing", or keeping on "mouthing" statements about human rights in his country.
Once in Laos, on September 7th, the two men shook hands briefly. Duterte told Obama he never cursed him and blamed the media for distorting his statement.
The next day, September 8th, when he addressed the East Asia Summit in the presence of Obama, he again counter attacked US history of human rights violation, presenting a picture of mass-killing Filipino Moros during a U.S. campaign in the southern Philippines at the beginning of the last century during US colonial rules. Reports say the whole room was silent. Duterte waited for response but Obama remained quiet.
And back at home, on 9th and 10th, he at least twice spoke of relations with the US, still in critical and sarcastic tones. He did say thanks to the ally, but for providing only "principles of law and nothing else". Instead, Duterte thanked China, a rival in the South China Sea dispute, for helping build a drug rehabilitation center in assistance to his anti-drug campaign.
A whole week of "slurs" and it's not rare from this "acid tongue". Earlier he lashed out at the US ambassador in Manila, Pope Francis and the United Nations in similar tones, as they all were also critical of his handling the anti-drug war. Obama is just the latest, for urging Duterte to conduct his crime war "the right way".
Lack of statesmanship? It's indeed rare to hear a head of state so "foul-mouthed" at press conferences and international summits, lashing out at foreign leaders. For Duterte, the Philippines' Donald Trump,acid language is only a "habit". What's really unusual is bashing a treaty ally while praising an "adversary" in a territorial dispute.
The logic of the illogic lies in two aspects – national sovereignty free from foreign interference, and deep frustration to see someone maneuvering in the South China Sea issue and turning the matter into a really awkward dilemma.
Duturte came to office on June 30th. He won the presidency, large due to his tough talking on drugs and he sees his victory as a popular mandate to wage war on drugs, vowing to kill ten thousand drug criminals. More than 2000 people have been killed during the campaign. For him, nothing seems more important than that. For this, he rejected domestic and international criticism of his policy. Otherwise, who would be so "rude" to the leader of the world's most powerful nation and an ally which helped Manila win an arbitration award over sovereignty disputes against China?
For Duterte, fighting against illegal drugs is a matter of sovereignty only within Philippine jurisdiction. So he rejects any other country "lecturing" him, allies or not. Should anyone meddle, he would tell them to mind their own business, citing their own rights records. China's assistance with a drug rehabilitation center comes at a time of need – to help reduce the number of drug addicts. Rival? That's a different matter. Duterte just calls a spade a spade. Besides, China, regardless of its view on his combat, never attempts to tell him how to tackle the worst cancer of the Philippines. Make no mistake. Duterte welcomes quiet assistance and is allergic to megaphone interference.
Then the sea dispute. Duterte certainly disagrees with China over who owns the disputed islands, reefs and the waters. But he prefers a realistic approach, other than an open showdown. His predecessor, Mr. Achino's efforts through the Hague tribunal only brought him a meaningless victory merely on paper. And the American ally cares more of its continuous dominant role in Asia Pacific and its own "freedom of movement" in the region. That's why at the East Asia Summit in Laos, Duterte and other ASEAN leaders, including those from countries also involved in the disputes, made no mention of the sovereignty issue, while only Obama and Shinzo Abe, leaders of the countries outside the region, kept pushing China to respect and comply with the tribunal award.
For himself, this straight-talking leader said there are only two options – fighting a war or conduct negotiations. He rightly admitted that the former would lead him nowhere, gaining nothing on the "ground" and the latter is the only feasible choice but now appears awkward, as the leverage is diminishing due to the Hague ruling.
Feasible because history records China reached deals on border issues with 12 of its 14 land neighbors and partial sea disputes with Vietnam, through lengthy negotiations. It's ready to conduct talks with other claimants over the South China Sea issue and willing to discuss joint exploration of resources in the region even before the sovereignty issue is resolved.
Awkward because the Hague verdict paper is there only to increase emotional sentiments of the two peoples against any possible diplomatic compromise, thus further diminishing the already limited leverage of either government. He feels difficult to abandon the "paper", nor can he use it for real gains. That's why he carefully appointed former President Fidel Ramos as his envoy to conduct initial discussions with China and Mr. Ramos only arrived in China's southernmost province of Hainan in his first visit as special envoy and only met Madam Fu Ying, China's former ambassador in Manila. The real nature of this maiden trip? It's open for whatever interpretation. Has negotiation begun? The answer is yes and no. And on that matter, Duterte is only tight lipped.
But who knows when that acid tongue will return, against whom and over what?