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But Prof. Wang Gungwu of the National University of Singapore cautions about President Rodrigo Duterte’s unpredictability.
“You look around, you can’t find anybody like him. He’s quite distinctive. And that’s what I mean by unpredictable,” Wang said. “It can mean good things and bad things. Unpredictable can mean uncertainty, can create uncertainty, whereas unpredictability from another point of view gives you undue advantage and you put people off and they don’t know what to expect of you so you get the advantage.”
Both experts believe that like US President Donald Trump, Duterte brings a different kind of politics to the region: populism.
“Will the people of Southeast Asia buy into this kind of leadership? I think the jury is still out there. We never know. It’s like a new product coming to the market. You have to test it. But there is a danger, there is also a downside to populism because you can generate the hype, the excitement, the expectation. But if the leader fails to live up to expectations then you leave people disillusioned,” said Tang Siew Mun of the ASEAN Studies Center.
The experts noted that even as Duterte leans more toward China, his foreign policy direction is still vague.
“It certainly looks as if he is reacting against the US… but it doesn’t mean he is pivoting anywhere else….You don’t want to change one lot of masters for another lot of masters. If he is right in saying that America is behaving like masters towards him, you don’t want to change one for another, and you want to be free from all masters. That’s what independence would mean. So then apart from distancing from the US, nothing else is certain, not at this stage,” Wang said.
Wang believes that if a united Asean can stand up to the US and China, there will be peace in the region.
Tang sees an opportunity for Philippines as chair of Asean to be a bridge to the US and China when it engages them in the East Asia Summit and Asean Regional Forum.
“If President Duterte now has a better chemistry with President Trump, perhaps the Asean chair can bring a kind of understanding or facilitate some understanding because President Duterte has good ties with the Chinese. So I think Asean can play the role of a mediator,” Tang said.
(This story was produced under the Reporting Asean Program and media series implemented by Probe Media Foundation, Inc., supported by an Asean-Canada project, and funded by the Government of Canada. It is also in partnership with Air Asia, which is supporting the travel of journalists and other participants, and in collaboration with the Asean Foundation.)