Duterte and Trump

President Rodrigo Duterte and his partner Honeylet welcome US President Donald Trump
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The Chinese Embassy in Manila had earlier demolished Duterte spokesperson Salvador Panelo’s tale that should the government deport Chinese nationals illegally working in the Philippines, the Ambassador had threatened to do the same to Filipinos in China.

The Embassy said the Chinese government would do no such thing because it “respects” Philippine laws. But there was Panelo again last Saturday (March 2) with another story. This time it was about visiting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s supposedly telling President Rodrigo Duterte that he is just like US President Donald Trump in that he (Duterte) too is “frank, does not favor anyone and can go against everyone.”

Hardly containing his glee, Panelo went on to say that Pompeo was “very fond” of Mr. Duterte, implying thereby that Trump is similarly disposed. Whether Panelo was telling the truth or not, he apparently believes that being like Trump is something most Filipinos in this pro-US country would consider a virtue.

Trump has indeed demonstrated his affection for Duterte by saying that he’s doing an excellent job in his “war on drugs,” and even said it should be replicated in the US.  But he also knows how important the country is to US strategic interests in Asia: he described the Philippines at one point as “a prime piece of real estate.”

Panelo’s point in recalling that alleged incident was clear enough, however: Pompeo likes Mr. Duterte because he is just like Trump. Unfortunately that’s not as flattering to his patron as he thinks. There’s an emerging consensus among academics, the press, business, women’s groups, people of color and even conservatives in the US that Trump is one of the worst presidents the US has ever had. All the opinion polls are united in their findings that he has one of the lowest approval ratings of any US president after only two years in power.

Public approval of Trump is declining even in the US Midwest. It was at a low 40 percent this February, with nearly 60 percent disapproving of Trump in the same month. Like the Midwest, the South was also a Trump stronghold in 2016, but his approval rating has also declined in the southern states from around 60 percent in July 2018 to 44 percent last February. (Mr. Duterte’s approval ratings are of course much higher. Although they fell to 75 percent in September 2018, they were at 81 percent by year-end.)

Trump is currently under siege from a variety of accusations ranging from treason to dishonesty, racism, and disrespect for women and gays. Mr. Duterte’s critics could say that he does have these in common with Trump, although his forays into racist rhetoric have been relatively few, among them his dismissing the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) prosecutor as “that black woman.” But the word “treason” has also been used to describe his bending over backwards to accommodate not only the military interests of China by doing nothing about that country’s intrusion into the West Philippine Sea, but also his entering into onerous agreements with it and his encouraging the influx into the country of tens of thousands of Chinese workers while Filipinos are forced to leave the country for jobs abroad.

Mr. Duterte shares with Trump his widely known misogyny and disrespect for women, even as his so-called campaign against corruption has failed to convince anyone that honesty in government is really a regime policy.

Neither of them can stand criticism, an independent press, and free expression. Trump routinely condemns the critical US press for supposedly disseminating “fake news.” He has even described the media as “the enemy of the people,” and incited violence against journalists. If that sounds familiar, it is because Mr. Duterte has been doing the same thing to the independent press in the Philippines and frequently incites violence against regime critics.

What separates him from Trump are the drug-related killings under his watch, which, even if pegged at “only” 4,500 as the Philippine National Police (PNP) claims, is such a flagrantly unacceptable policy Trump has never again repeated the idea of his replicating in the US the Duterte policy that makes the killings inevitable.

Like Mr. Duterte, however, Trump has no coherent ideology or philosophy of government. It helps explain the confusion over what both were really up to during their first months in office. In Trump’s case, what has been established is that he isn’t really for anything beyond his personal interest in wealth and power. That’s according to his former “fixer,” Michael Cohen, who in his testimony before the US House of Representatives last February 28 called Trump a “racist, a con man and a cheat.”

Whatever he may be, as president of the lone remaining superpower on the planet, Trump has the political, economic, and military means to compel other countries, including the Philippines, to bow to US wishes. Mr. Duterte has neither the capacity nor the will to even defend Philippine sovereignty. Despite the seeming love fest between him and Trump, by visiting the Philippines at this time and reiterating the imperatives of the “special relations” between his country and the Philippines, the US Secretary of State was in fact sending Mr. Duterte and his Chinese patrons a  message that should be clear enough even to the most intellectually challenged.

Pompeo’s declaration that China’s occupation of the West Philippine Sea is against Philippine interests, and his reaffirmation of the US’ commitment to defend the Philippines under the terms of the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) if it is attacked were a warning to China as well as to the current regime. His statements were made in the context of the government’s failure to even protest Chinese aggression and its morphing into a Chinese dependency. The US regards both as offensive to its policy of containing the one country that is seriously challenging its dominance in Asia and elsewhere in the globe.

Malacanang is supposedly contemplating a review of the MDT. The US is likely to interpret that act as one more indication of Mr. Duterte’s pro-China policy, and can be expected to do all it can to prevent it, or to at least make sure that if it does happen, will only re-affirm the country’s need for the US’ security umbrella.  As the US’ most reliably subservient client institution, the Philippine military will not support any attempt to rescind the treaty, a certainty that will prevent the regime’s doing so despite Mr. Duterte’s anti-US bluster.

Will the supposed friendship between Mr. Duterte and Donald Trump matter should the US conclude that the former has become a liability? Trump is unlikely to risk his own interest in keeping his all-white and chauvinist constituency intact in preparation for the US presidential elections in 2020. That constituency is as likely to condemn any sign of US weakness in Asia in the same way that it condemned his inability to get the funding for the construction of his promised $5.7 billion wall along the US-Mexico border. There is also the fact that the US presidency is only one among several centers of power in that country. The US Congress, and the military-industrial complex among others, are power centers that do make their preferences felt in the framing and implementation of US domestic and foreign policies.

Mr. Duterte and Trump do have certain things in common. But they won’t be enough to make a difference once the US is convinced that Mr. Duterte’s pivot to China is real enough and hostile to US interests. And from all indications, particularly his often repeated claim that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) “wants to kill (him),” Mr. Duterte knows it.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.

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