Duterte the Dauntless and the Turnbull Government's South China Sea role

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Foreign Minister Bishop with President Duterte (image via @JulieBishopMP).

Bruce Haigh unpacks Australia's complex relationship with the Philippines and how this influences its role in the South China Sea. 

THE PHILIPPINES is undergoing unprecedented economic growth – last year said to be six per cent – fuelled by remittances and foreign investment, mainly from China and South Korea.

Traffic in the major cities is congested and the single biggest inhibitor to productivity improvement — a point made recently by the World Bank.

President Duterte has threatened to remove the ubiquitous Jeepney from the roads but owners have bravely pushed back, prepared to face the gun-toting law enforcing cowboys who pass for police.

The vigilante pogrom against the drug trade has its origins in a gun culture inherited from the United States during the 60 years it was colonial overlord. Stung by domestic and international criticism including the Catholic Church, human rights groups and the EU – which is withholding aid – Duterte announced new policing measures against alleged drug dealers, which seems to be to ask questions and shoot rather than shoot and then answer questions. He has scoffed at reports that the International Criminal Court will begin a preliminary examination of extrajudicial killings associated with the drug trade.

Duterte is popular with the people, even down to his crude and sexist "humour". They see him as down to earth in a Barnaby Joyce sort of way. The Philippine people have not been served well in terms of leadership over the last 70 years. With one ruling family replacing another, serving only self-interest on the back of grinding poverty bolstered by large families, which has the support of the church.

Duterte talks the language of the people, he says what they want to hear; they believe he will deliver. It will not take much to convert this populism into a dictatorship. Although the military remains wary of him, it was nonetheless pleased with the extension of martial law in the province of Mindanao in January, for a further 12 months. Some are worried about his flirtation with China which had him claim in early February that he would not mind if the Philippines became a province of China.

In 2012, the UN recognised the Philippines claim to the 13-million-hectare undersea plateau known as the Benham or Philippine Rise. A Chinese research vessel, Ke Xue Hao, recently concluded a month-long scientific survey along the rise, apparently under the auspices of a secret agreement negotiated with the President Duterte's office. China is seeking naming rights to a number of undersea features within the Philippine Basin including a ridge "discovered" by the Chinese vessel,  Li Siguang, in 2004.

At the conclusion of the Chinese research mission, Duterte announced that he would allow no more foreign exploration of the Rise. His domestic critics are cynical believing that he has rolled over to the Chinese who have not offered to share their research and Duterte has not pressed them to do so. The Philippine foreign office said contentious issues were raised at the second meeting of the six-monthly Philippine-China Bilateral Consultation Mechanism held in Manila on 13 February — however, there was no communiqué.

At best, Duterte has been half-hearted in opposing Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea, which with the construction of bases is seen by most Filipinos as a fait accompli. There is a concern to maintain sovereignty over territory claimed by the Philippines but there is none of the paranoia expressed in the media, in the national dialogue or by politicians toward China, that exists in Australia.

Concern at Chinese attempts to extend their domestic influence and measures to contain or prevent unreasonable interference should be crafted, focused and routine, but observed from a distance, Australia’s response appears mildly hysterical, racist and driven by the Murdoch press. Rupert has an axe to grind with China.

The regional response to China has been firm and reasonable however the United States is allowed far more latitude than it deserves or has earned. Its influence is neither benign nor altruistic; as with China, everything it does is designed to advance domestic interests. Through surveillance, financial expenditure, bribes and soft diplomacy, it has infiltrated major institutions in Australia, particularly defence, large corporations and the political process where they intersect with U.S. interests and requirements.

Duterte is holding the United States at arm’s length which is viewed favourably by the average Filipino — 90 years of American involvement in Filipino politics has left a negative legacy. From 1944 until 1991, the U.S. had a major military presence centred on Clark Air Force Base and the Subic Bay Naval Base. (The U.S. is currently applying pressure to reopen the base). The U.S. translated their power and influence into supporting corrupt ruling families who gave rise to corrupt presidents and politicians who, in turn, supported the U.S. presence in the Philippines.

The United States recently deployed the carrier USS Carl Vinson with support vessels to the South China Sea, causing international flights to be diverted. Australia, Japan, France and Britain have all undertaken port visits to Manilla. This modern gunboat diplomacy is useful in asserting a presence and interest in the region but it hasn’t caused China to change step.

Duterte has been invited to a summit of ASEAN in Sydney from 16-18 March. It is an opportunity to focus on regional security and trade. Australia re-engaged more closely with the Philippines last year, deploying two surveillance aircraft to assist in breaking the siege of Marawi City by ISIS and local Abu Sayyaf terrorists. It has also deployed two patrol boats to assist in the interdiction of vessels bringing arms and terrorists to the Philippines from Indonesia and 80 specialist soldiers to train members of the Philippine army in close quarter clearance and fighting.

This demonstrates an admirable commitment to the Philippines. However, trade and investment lags where it should be thriving in a country where English is widely spoken. Australia needs to build closer institutional ties with the Philippines as well as enhance student and people-to-people ties. Incredibly, there are no direct flights from Perth to the Philippines, despite both being in the same time zone. Business opportunities go begging.

Duterte, like Trump, is thin-skinned. He hates criticism, particularly relating to his appalling human rights record. However, there is more to the Philippines than Duterte. If Malcolm Turnbull can get along with Trump he should be able to find enough common ground to strengthen economic, educational, diplomatic and security ties with the Philippines.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat. He has served in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, run the Indonesia section and visits Mindanao. You can follow Bruce on Twitter @bruce_haigh.

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