In one of the televised presidential debates during the campaign, then-candidate Rodrigo Duterte said he would assert the Philippine claim in the disputed waters of the South China Sea even if he had to board a jet ski waving the Philippine flag.
This makes for a good mental image —but it leads us to wonder what kind of foreign policy we can expect from the man sworn into office today.
Despite earlier pronouncements, the mayor appears inclined to pursue direct talks with China about the conflict in the disputed territory. He knows the Philippines cannot go to war against China.
“We cannot defeat (China). We will be pulverized if we go to war. So I will just tell them, ‘If you want to talk, let’s talk.”
This, despite a pending decision from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, where the Philippines brought its case against China.
In fact, when US President Barack Obama called him right after he won the elections, Duterte said he was maintaining his position on keeping an open line for bilateral talks.
“I assured him [Obama] that we will continue with our mutual interests and that we are allied with the Western [World] in this issue on China Sea. But if it goes on still waters, I said, there’s no wind to move the sail, I might opt to go bilateral,” Duterte said, even as he revealed that Obama urged him to wait for the arbitration results.
In another statement during the campaign, Duterte joked about the rape and killing of an Australian missionary during a prison riot in Davao City in 1989.
Reacting to Duterte’s words, Australian ambassador Amanda Gorely said: “Rape and murder should never be joked about or trivialized. Violence against women and girls is unacceptable anytime, anywhere.”
US Ambassador Philip Goldberg also denounced the statements, saying “Statements by anyone, anywhere that either degrade women or trivialize issues so serious as rape or murder are not ones that we condone.”
Candidate Duterte dared Australia and the US to cut ties with the Philippines: “If I become the President, go ahead and sever the ties. It was not a joke when I uttered it. They took it as a joke when I narrated it. These ambassadors are stupid. I was mad when I uttered it. When I narrated it, I was not angry anymore.”
Soon afterwards, however, a more sober Duterte spoke again: “Who am I to sever the ties? The villain there is the media. You posed a question supposing it could result in the severance of the ties. The media is like that. I said if [the US and Australia] so desire, it’s okay with me. It was not my idea,” Duterte said.
Filipinos may find it difficult to adjust to Duterte’s reactive, impassioned and unpredictable style, especially when it concerns issues that go beyond the nation’s borders. Spelling him out over the next six years may well be a challenge, but if it is any consolation, this is a leader who appears to have the best interests of the nation in mind, his feet firmly planted on the ground.
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