The Duterte Paradox: Taiwan and the Philippines Head into the Unknown

The Duterte Paradox: Taiwan and the Philippines Head into the Unknown
Photo Credit: EPA/達志影像

What you need to know

Philippine President-elect Rodrigo Duterte is seen as a wildcard by many and his moves over the coming months will send ripples across the region.  

Labelled the “Trump of the East,” the former Davao City mayor has an international reputation for being both frank and opaque.

Duterte was elected with a strong majority in early May and will be sworn in on June 30. After six years of stability under outgoing President Benigno Aquino, commentators in Taipei and in Manila are now unsure what the future holds for Taiwan-Philippines relations.

Taiwan Thinktank Vice President Lai I-chung (賴怡忠) says questions on Duterte’s position on security, regional economic integration and free-trade remain unanswered.

“We do not know how he will approach the issues policy-wise,” Lai told The News Lens International. “We are still keeping a close eye on him.”

As President Tsai’s Ing-wen (蔡英文) pushes the Democratic Progressive Party's new Southbound Policy – a move to rebalance Taiwan’s economy away from China and toward emerging economies in the region – Duterte’s statements in the coming months will “dictate” whether Taiwan will include the Philippines as a target destination, Lai says.

“I am hoping that the Philippine administration understands that their words and actions matter very much,” he says.

Taiwan is an important investor in the Philippines – more than 60 Taiwanese businesses already operate within the archipelago’s special economic zones. Lai says that under Aquino, Tsai “definitely” would have looked to integrate the Philippines into the Southbound policy. Duterte will therefore need to reassure the international community – “including Taiwan” – to clarify his intentions, he says.

Paolo Zamora is a senior programme officer at the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, which is linked to Philippines opposition Liberal Party and Taiwan’s ruling DPP, a fellow member of CALD.

According to the Manila-based Zamora, Duterte was been clear on his promise to tackle drugs, crime and corruption, but his statements to date on other major issues, like the economy, have been “vague.”

In an eight-point economic plan released last month, Duterte said he would continue the economic policies of his predecessor, including a programme of public-private partnerships. He also signalled constitutional changes to relax restrictions on foreign-direct investment, boosting infrastructure and amending the country’s labor and tax systems.

Zamora says the broad plan has been welcomed by some in the business community, but “there is not much detail.”

Conflicting messages

Looking outwards from Manila, Duterte’s regional intentions are less clear. His conflicting statements on China and its territorial claims have led some to joke locally that he will need a "ministry of interpretation."

Zamora, somewhat more seriously, says Duterte will need a “very good communications team."

In the lead-up to the election, Duterte said he was open to sharing resources in the disputed waters with China – he was particularly open to making concessions if China agreed to construct several infrastructure projects in the Philippines. However, he also said that he would personally stake the claim of Philippines sovereignty in disputed territories.

With the Permanent Court of Arbitration in Hague expected to soon release a judgment on ownership of the Spratly Islands – claimed by both Philippines and China, among others – the need to make a decision may be drawing near, and the international community will be watching his every move.

Duterte has said he will follow international law, but also wants to improve relations with China – a move that would potentially upset long-term ally, the U.S.

“Duterte said he can wait for the [arbitration] result, but not for long,” says Zamora.

On issues relating to Philippines’ sovereign disputes with China, Zamora notes that Duterte also has deal to with split public opinions back home.

“It is like Taiwan,” Zamora says. “There are people who want to be at peace with them. There are others who say ‘we have to have fight for what it ours.’”

The situation is made even more difficult by the relationship with the U.S., which is still a key ally of the Philippines and has military bases there. Zamora says that while Duterte has said he will “respect” the existing arrangements with the U.S., he will also “monitor the limits."

Taiwan Thinktank's Lai says there are already “some warning signs” in Duterte’s approach to the South China Sea dispute. Duterte cutting “his own deal with China” would “jeopardize” the regional alliance that has been the status-quo, he says.

“He seems to have [made] a dramatic U-turn from President Aquino,” says Lai.

Flashpoints

Despite improved economic cooperation between Taiwan and the Philippines in recent years, the relationship soured in 2013 after a Taiwanese fishing boat was shot at by the Philippine coastguard. One Taiwanese fisherman was killed. A diplomatic row followed – including the dispatch of Taiwan’s coastguard and Navy – but many since have blamed then-president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) for escalating the dispute.

Like many things with Duterte, Lai says it is also “unknown” how the Philippines would approach issues like future fishing disputes with Taiwan.

“Is he going be blunt and use whatever means he wants to use? Or will he follow the international protocols? We do not know.”

However, Duterte will not necessarily be giving this sort of issue much thought at this stage, says Zamora. Duterte is known as an “action guy,” he says, adding that rather than have a lot of foresight, the new president is more likely to react to circumstances as they unfold.

Zamora says Duterte has signalled a preference to follow international laws on issues like fishery disputes. But then again, this week he also appeared to defend the killing of journalists. This is the paradox the world may have to get used to.