UP until the end of last week, the prevailing business and investor attitude towards President Rodrigo Duterte was, “We’re still not sure what to make of this guy, but we’re seeing some good signs, so we’re going to give him the benefit of the doubt for at least a little while more.”
Duterte’s “I announce in this venue” speech in which he publicly broke with the US and swore fealty to our new Mandarin Overlords set that attitude on edge; his hasty backpedaling beginning the very next day pushed it over and sent it crashing down. What was optimistic uncertainty has now turned to fear, and as a result, I and a few others with a similar mindset find ourselves with an unexpected and somewhat regrettable opportunity in helping businesses and individuals to prepare exit strategies.
Most of those who are now feeling they need a clear “worst-case scenario” plan are foreign businessmen and residents, but a surprising number (among the various calls and messages I’ve received in the past couple of days, about one in four) are Filipinos. That is an indication that it is not necessarily the substance of what comes out of Duterte’s mouth that is worrisome, but rather the obvious problem that not even he seems to know what he will say next, and is apparently incapable of grasping that as the head of state his word is policy.
Duterte’s antagonism towards US policy is well founded, and it is the individual Americans here who probably agree with it the most; if that were not the case, most of us wouldn’t be here in the first place. The US government, for all the good it is capable of doing in the world, does some highly questionable things in pursuit of maintaining its position as the world’s alpha superpower, and over the last eight years, has furthermore done them with less skill than it used to have. Objectively, wanting to keep the US at arm’s length is probably very prudent. By the same token, cultivating a productive but careful relationship with China – despite its having a questionable geopolitical outlook of a different sort – is also probably very prudent; it is, after all, the biggest market in this part of the world.
What a leader should not do, however, if he intends to pursue an “independent foreign policy,” is reveal his relationship goals with one major power in a public speech as a guest of the other. There is no sensible reason for doing what Duterte did in Beijing, unless he was compelled to do so by the Chinese as a quid pro quo for the enormous amount of investment they were dangling, or actually wanted to present himself as a supplicant, which was how he came across no matter what inspired the speech. Making that speech was stupid enough; immediately backtracking on it put Duterte, and as a result the whole country, in an even worse position than being a client state of one power or another – appearing as inconsistent and untrustworthy to both of them.
The worries among people who live and do business here are twofold, both equally frightening. The most immediate fear is that Duterte’s attitude will incite the population that overwhelmingly supports him; so far, no one has reported being subject to anti-American xenophobia, but the mere possibility – particularly with the example of how ardently the general population adopted Duterte’s bloodlust with respect to the anti-drug campaign – is enough to scare some people away. The second fear is that Duterte’s capriciousness is not limited to foreign policy, and that when his government is free from being handcuffed by Aquino’s last budget, it will be freer to express his policy inconsistency.
The local manager – a Filipino – of an American-owned BPO operation in Cavite expressed the frustration now being felt in a conversation over the weekend, when he revealed that his company has quietly put on hold plans to expand and add a couple hundred new employees next year. “It’s nuts,” he said. “We don’t know if this guy is going to wake up tomorrow and decide to order all the Americans out. And then change his mind in the afternoon. It’s gotten to the point where no one knows what to believe, and you can’t make plans on that. It breaks my heart, we’re doing so well, and there’s only more business out there. But the company doesn’t know what to do now, and so it’s not going to do anything, and we…all the people working here, or could be, we’re the ones who lose.”