President Duterte’s tough-talk foreign policy

Ricardo Saludo

Ricardo Saludo

He was very relaxed when I visited him. In fact, he was just wearing slippers in Malacañang. I tell you, he’s very, very simple; a humble man. He’s easy to talk with, and you won’t be afraid to approach him.
— Cardinal Ricardo Vidal on his August visit to President Rodrigo Duterte

Repeat the above remarks of the 85-year-old Cebu Archbishp Emeritus to US President Barack Obama, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and the European Union, and they may wonder if His Eminence might have gone into the wrong Palace room.

Humble, approachable and easy to talk with aren’t exactly the qualities that come to mind when reading news about President Rodrigo Duterte’s words and gestures toward America, Europe and the United Nations, especially over their criticism of his bloody anti-narcotics campaign.

Yet the stark contrast between the reserved private Duterte — bowing to visitors and, with Cardinal Ricardo Vidal, kissing the prelate’s hand — and his tough-talking public persona, may point to not a split personality, but a deliberate strategy.

What might that strategy be? Let’s review the tapes, so to speak, and figure out the method in the crudeness, if there is one.

Taking on the West
President Duterte’s expletive-laden remarks to the United States and the United Nations’ highest officials need little playback to jog people’s memory. Political analysts and media commentators have mostly deplored Duterte’s “colorful” language. Ditto the cuss words and middle-finger sign directed at the EU.

Certainly, using four-letter words in public statements seems at best, unnecessary, and at worst, damaging to the name, image and international goodwill of Duterte and the Philippines. Recent articles on the peso’s drop to its weakest since 2009 even suggest that Duterte’s tough talk may be undercutting business confidence in the country.

Still, a contrarian view argues that using cuss words wins Duterte global coverage, which temperate language would never get. So if he means to signal a major shift in foreign relations, his gutter talk certainly delivers the message farther and wider than more respectable language.

For Western governments and audiences, Duterte’s diatribes naturally paint him in devilish hues. But hard-nosed businessmen, even those in the foreign business chambers which recently warned of investor jitters, would make investment decisions based not only on presidential soundbites, but on official policies and programs, especially the administration’s infrastructure and regional development push.

Meanwhile, for Asian leaders and nations, especially those also nursing colonial-era grievances, the tough talk toward the West may actually find nods of support, though perhaps mostly silent ones.

Beijing would, of course, cheer Duterte’s apparent distancing from its rival Washington. The country’s fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have shown not even a hint of disdain toward the tough talk. And not a few former colonies may yet be relishing the West’s lambasting by a Third World leader.

Asean officials were reportedly shocked at Duterte’s recounting, with pictures, of the Bud Dajo massacre of 600 Mindanao Muslims by American troops in 1906. But that may have been due not only to the undiplomatic outburst from the Philippines, but also the appalling atrocity by America.

Even Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Duterte was popular in Japan, perhaps due to his unrelenting battle against organized crime, which may resonate well in a land fearful of Yakuza gangs. Rather than haranguing Duterte over rights issues, Tokyo has been providing patrol boats.

In sum, while creating animosity in Western governments and media, the nasty remarks toward the West may be building goodwill toward the Philippines in developing nations and America’s rivals, including China, Russia and maybe some Islamic states.

That would signal major powers with strong interests in the Philippines to deal with us not in the patronizing and even exploitative ways of the past, but with respect for our country, attention to its views and interests, and perhaps more generosity. And none of the blatantly one-sided deals like the one allowing massive deployment of foreign forces in the country with access to Philippine military bases, but with zero commitment to help defend our territorial claims — our main external security problem.

Duterte proposes, Yasay opposes
The other talk problem raised by Duterte watchers are the apparent flip-flopping in foreign policy statements, with the President calling on US troops in Mindanao to leave, then his spokesmen saying he didn’t mean for them to go anytime soon.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. has also done his share of taking back what his boss lets loose.

Just this week, soon after President Duterte talked of forging alliances with China and Russia, Secretary Yasay, speaking in Washington, was insisting that the US will remain a close friend and partner of the Philippines.

Understandably, the apparently conflicting statements may be confusing other nations regarding the foreign policy directions of the Philippines.

Which may be exactly what Duterte wants, and which his alter egos would dutifully implement, even if it makes them appear to be contradicting their boss.

Think about it: If the Philippines aims to get the best arrangements with the major powers, with which it is recalibrating its ties, it helps to keep them off balance. Then, as mentioned several paragraphs above, these powers may try to woo the Philippines, instead of offering little extra, since they know exactly where relations are going.

This is especially crucial with China. It would offer little by way of protocol to prevent further encroachments and militarization in the South China Sea, if it believed that Duterte was sure to get US forces out of the country.

As for America, the ambiguity in Philippine foreign policy may just blunt the appeal of those urging regime change to keep the country deeply in the alliance.

So next time you hear President Duterte shock the world with his soundbites, forget the expletives and ponder the strategy.

The guy who won the elections after saying he never wanted to run, isn’t as f***ing dumb as he seems.


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  1. I sincerely hope any strategy works. Remember China and the US are no dummies. Once the US is out there is no turning back and then that’s when China will seizes the opportunity to act on what’s up their sleeves. Its hard to play a hard ball.

  2. The Philippines would be part oif Japan for the last 60 years if the USA did not protect it. Now is the same invasion from China.

    China does not respect Filipino’s be warned

  3. Mr. Saludo, just ask him about human rights. Come on. Just try. Let us see what would be his reaction. Strategy huh? Hmm…can’t believe you fall for that hook, line and sinker. Strategy? Really? Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha…

  4. Yonkers, New York
    29 September 2016

    Yes, Ricardo Saludo: Little Tyrant Rodrigo Duterte, who clearly has no use for long-established HUMAN RIGHTS, and is now engaged in the warrantless genocidal killing of those suspected of being involved one way or the other in the illegal drug problem, is getting to be known as a tough talker in foreign policy and what he says there is usually laced with the cuss words “Putang ina mo! ” reinforced for effect with his middle finger!

    In foreign policy it is more than abundantly clear that he is through the the United States, a long-time ally of the Philippines, and is now well on the road to embracing China and Russia, as well as those countries’ ideology, COMMUNISM.

    He may have a “good” reason to spite the United States, whose President Obama has not congratulated him for his genocidal warrantless orgy of killing suspects in his drug war, but has taken him to task for it.

    But is SPITE against the US a good and sufficient reason to rashly embrace China and Russia and their ideology, COMMUNISM?


  5. It seems you agree with duerte on upsetting the leaders of the west & want to move more to the east, well do it, then dont complain after.
    Think of any important foreigner saying silly things about the filipino people & you have a clamour to ban them from the country & that happens. Now what would happen if someone had called a filipino president a son of a whore, my god you would want world war 3 to take place, yet when your president does it you look for a positive spin on it. There truly is some deep rooted stupidity flowing through the minds of many filipinos.If there are dire consequences to pay for all of this you wont get my sympathy as you will deserve those consequences.

  6. Simeon E. Anekang on

    Thanks for the insight. Lets give them the chance to fulfil change they promise, help the country by helping t least yourself. But if you help not only yourself, then that change start within you – helping one another will make our country continue succeed and prosper..

  7. Sec. Salud please watch your language on your last sentence, the yellow bleeding hearts/modern day Pharisees/critics are reading your article as well.

    Hehe, never mind this thousands of pinoy Duterte supporters abroad reading your article we use to it, since election we hear it all the time.

  8. Thank you! FINALLY, there is a columnist who says what i’ve always thought was behind all these posturing.
    My favorite expression from MANICANI says:
    It’s the end of W.A.R. that matters. Not W-ords, not A-ction but R_esults.
    Result is Duterte, got elected despite his Words and Actions,
    I hope he stays ground in trying to accomplish his vision.
    Let’s forget the S.I.P’s lack of foresight. They can only see the now, and re-acts ad hoc.

    • You do not create enemies. You create friends. This guy is a trouble maker. He push people around. He will be sorry. Of course US takes advantage of us but do we not take advantage of the US with financial assistance when there are floods. US gave us for free warships, building schools in our barrios, providing medical assistance for our countrymen. We are also taking advantage of the US. It is a 2 way street.

  9. Sir, you’ve put into words what I’ve been pondering for quite a while. Duterte is a chess strategist, making moves with 20 moves ahead in mind. My take on cozying up with China is you pointed out, to make the US treat us as equals, not brown little boys. 2.the drug problems. He knows most of the stuff comes from China, or are made by Chinese here. And this may have tacit blessings from the Chinese government. By sleeping with the devil, so to speak, I think he hopes to rid the problem at the source.

  10. mr saludo huwag kang mag pauto sa mga sinasabi ni duterte . mahusay yan sa salita kaya pareho kayong bisaya . naglolokohan pa kayo. dapat tignan mo ang ginagawa niya. DUTERTE must resign now.

    • Sige pag nag resign siya ay ikaw na ang papalit sa kanya. 100% boto ako sa iyo. Basta mas magaling ka kesa sa kanya at pag hindi mo nagawa samahan mo na lang si De5 sa kanyang tantrums at taga-alo sa kanya baka kasi maglupagi palagi ang ale. Okey ba.

  11. Finally we have a president who is correcting the impression built by the 30 year yellow regime that we are the obsequious America- loving Uncle Tom of Asia. Mabuhay ang Bagong Pilipino !

  12. the philippines should make a choice of what way they want like a true independent neutral friendly or mao,castro or allende outcome. a fair and balance talk with your enemy and friend with no precondition maybe solve their current quagmire.