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.