President Trump has invited Rodrigo Duterte, the mercurial president of the Philippines, to the White House. In a similar move, he also says he might meet with Kim Jong-un of North Korea. President Duterte, like his North Korean counterpart, might well be mentally ill; his unpredictable rants (which make President Trump’s look sedate) do not suggest stability. Regardless, if at all possible, America needs Duterte on its side.
Duterte’s value to the United States does not, as Reince Priebus oddly suggested over the weekend, have to do with North Korea. Duterte has very little economic or policy relevance to the problems we have with Kim Jong-un’s regime. He’s important, rather, because of China – and specifically, because of his policy towards China’s island-construction campaign. The successor to Japan’s expansionism in the 1930s, China’s island imperialism in the East and South China Seas has two objectives. First, it seeks to establish control over the vast trade flows (including energy-related ones) through those waters. Second, it seeks to push out U.S. military forces. If China succeeds, regional governments will become subjects to an authoritarian empire with a placid name: the Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank.
The Philippines is crucial if that outcome is to be prevented. Geography explains why. At the southern edge of the South China Sea is Malaysia. At the western edge is Vietnam. And at the eastern edge is the Philippines. While China’s expansionism has provoked rising concern in all three nations, the Philippines is the linchpin – because of the Spratly island chain, which is the effective doorway to the northern Pacific. Sitting between Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and the Malacca Strait – the Pacific Ocean’s gateway to the Indian Ocean — the Spratlys are geopolitical crown jewels. If China controls them, it controls the Western Pacific.
Malaysia and Vietnam both have claims to the Spratlys, but the Philippines has shown the most resolve in standing up to China, and last year won an international ruling against China on the ownership of the islands.
The situation Trump must deal with is that Duterte has not yet decided how to deal with the Spratlys. Until recently, he had been suggesting that he would accept Chinese control in order to win favorable trade and political terms with Beijing. Duterte’s choice was likely in part a consequence of President Obama’s deep hesitation over the issue of preserving stability in the South China Sea.
But early last month, Duterte ordered his military to occupy some of the islands. For the U.S. and the region, this was a positive development. After all, to succeed in its East China Sea imperialism, China must be opposed by a collective of nations to the east, west, and south. Even with U.S. support, however, Vietnam and Malaysia could not — without the Philippines — prevent China’s expansionism. But if Duterte opposed China’s activities, the U.S might also persuade others to do so. As long-term strategic interests go, a White House meeting with Duterte would be a small price to pay for that outcome. Indeed, sharing Duterte’s flamboyance, disdain for criticism, and unbridled machismo, Trump might actually be the perfect diplomat for this situation. If nothing else, Trump’s dealing with Duterte is far less risky than his dealing with Putin-the-manipulator.
Some disagree. Rightly disgusted by Duterte’s human-rights abuses, many U.S. commentators are now claiming that a Duterte White House visit would stain America’s moral credibility. But this view is inconsistent with the approach taken by many of the same commentators in March 2009. Back then, Obama offered friendship to Iran’s theocratic leaders, even though there were no perceivable short-term gains that could be achieved by doing so. That fake friendship carried a heavy price. Three months later, Obama stayed silent as the theocrats brutalized Iranians protesting for basic freedom. Unbound from verifiable expectations, Obama’s friends-with-Iran-at-all-costs policy meant eight years of chaos for Iraqi and Lebanese democracy, the Syrian regime’s chemical/barrel-bomb/starvation attacks on civilians, and the violent regional politicization of sectarianism.
We have major strategic interests that Duterte can either support or strangle.
In some cases, though, talking with challenging foreign leaders can be fruitful. Take Obama’s predecessor. In December 2006, President Bush hosted Abdul Aziz al-Hakim at the White House. Leader of a powerful but hardline Iraqi Shiite political party, al-Hakim was no American ally. On the contrary, as al-Hakim sat in the Oval Office, his underlings at the Iraqi Interior Ministry were continuing to kidnap, torture, and murder thousands of Iraqi Sunnis. Bush knew this. But he also knew that U.S. strategic interests required influence in Iraqi politics. And he believed al-Hakim could offer that. He was right. The surge, and associated political compromises from Shiite political groups, followed in the ensuing years.
Bush’s hard-headed realism helped save Iraq. Obama’s putative realism, in contrast, won him a preemptive Nobel prize, and gave America’s enemies ballistic missiles that will eventually carry nuclear warheads.
Yes, Duterte’s murder of thousands of drug users is deeply immoral. Yes, it deserves expression of U.S. concern. But for Trump, the operative question is whether those acts override all other American concerns. I do not believe that they do. We have major strategic interests that Duterte can either support or strangle. Trump is right to engage him.