Duterte: Wildcards and Costless Signals


In the weeks following the presidential election in America, it has been rather difficult to see news that does anything other than speculate on the future of American policy. However, a light-hearted video of ‘Karaoke Diplomacy’ managed to find its way into various news broadcasts showing the moment the Philippine President, and the Malaysian Prime Minister, engaged in karaoke. This scene is not indicative of the atmosphere of President Duterte’s rule since June 2016. In this time, he has initiated a program of extra-judicial killings of drug-dealers as well as controversially announcing various foreign policy intentions such as a denunciation of the US-Philippine alliance via flagrant statements on Obama, and other leading global figures. This surprised many due to the historic nature of the US-Philippines alliance which includes significant military ties and US bases embedded in bilateral treaty agreements. Furthermore, Duterte has embarked on an unconventional path of rapprochement with China following the Chinese defeat against the Philippines in a United Nations Arbitral Tribunal regarding the South China Sea, an area which has seen growing tensions in recent times.

Duterte’s extra-judicial war on drugs has been perceived negatively in many countries due to a continued embrace of human rights violations.[1] His rapprochement to China has been dismissed by numerous commentators as rhetoric, and ‘verbal grenades’.[2] Furthermore, his denunciation of the US-Philippine military alliance has not come to fruition in any real policy terms with  several Philippine officials (as well as the president himself) contradicting previously declared positions.[3] His near six months in office have been seen as ‘interesting hot air’ rather than a real threat to US security in the Pacific. Institutional, structural, and security limitations on Duterte’s attempt to rebalance his diplomatic allegiances have resulted in this perception.[4] Domestically, the United States is a popular ally for the Philippines further limiting Duterte’s options.[5] Nonetheless Duterte’s ability to throw around rhetoric, denounce the USA, and cozy up with China is a dangerous sign. He precariously walks the line between reality and fabrications, seeking national interest somewhere in between. Though still lacking in any significant policy change, Duterte has shown he has new tools with which to pursuit national interests such as diplomatic realignments, rhetoric, and ‘playing off’ the USA and China. If successful, he may influence other Asian leaders to utilize executive powers and adopt similar kaleidoscopic policies which would have implications for the US system of security alliances.

Duterte’s foreign policy motives may have been inspired by a pragmatic approach to China by avoiding further escalation of tensions in the South China Sea, while seeking economic ties, and aid through a conciliatory tone.[6] Duterte has mentioned the United States’ colonial past in addition to their actions in Iraq when explaining his opposition to the alliance. Joseph Nye’s concept of soft power may explain how Duterte managed to muster the courage to vehemently criticize the United States. Recent American foreign policy weaknesses, such as a failure to deal with Russia in the Ukraine, or a relatively passive foreign policy in Asia, may have spurred Duterte to engage in his war of words due to weakness in American soft power – soft power being the ability to co-opt rather than coerce actors through attraction. [7]

Regardless of these factors, Duterte diplomacy with China is ultimately a win-win situation due to potential economic gains.[8] It is in China’s interests to greet Duterte with open arms in order to create a favorable image of China, one which may be able to convince other Asian rivals to engage in similar policies. China’s recognition of this advantage is clarified via the $17 billion combined business deals that Duterte signed in a recent visit to China. This is in addition to a cooling of tensions between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea demonstrated by the gradual return of Philippine fishermen to the Scarborough Shoal, a shoal which China stamped its influence on after a standoff in 2012. This feat was described by the aide of Former President Fidel Ramos as ‘mission accomplished’.[9] The structure of Chinese politics allows China to create and respond to such incentive structures relatively easily, especially in comparison to the United States. The United states being a functioning democracy suffers from audience costs; a penalty for backing down in foreign policy events. Duterte’s rhetoric has the ability to affect the US policy-making process through these audience costs; if his anti-US rhetoric escalates it may limit US policy responses or provide the ability to gain concessions via rhetorical fearmongering even more so if actions exist to reinforce the rhetoric.

This rhetorical tactic, if successful, may be an example of costless signalling with policy reprisals. James Fearon described costless signals as ‘cheap talk,’ conducted by states with no ‘disincentive to sending them’.[10] Costless signalling is another example of a win-win situation for Duterte, as currently the cheap talk has no costs, but has the potential to assist in the extraction of concessions through an improvement of bargaining position. Taking this into consideration, there has also been a financial cost of Duterte’s rhetoric such as a withdrawal of capital by foreign investors and currency fluctuations.[11] Evidently this financial cost is not enough to tame Duterte’s rhetorical mechanism. CSIS’s Gregory Poling credited the Obama administration for their calm response which ‘reiterates US commitment to the Philippines’ in the face of Duterte’s foreign policy views which are recognized as an inaccurate reflection of the popular mood.[12]

Whether this calm response is a strategically calculated one, or a manifestation of Obama’s ‘lame-duck’ status, is debatable. In either case, a lack of response or implementation of a progressive cost mechanism on Duterte’s transgressions only encourages his rhetoric which in turn could dangerously encourage other actors to go down the same path of rhetorical (or real) diplomatic realignment. Malaysia’s recent rapprochement with China is an early demonstration of this potential domino effect. However, Richard Heydarian accurately observed that in recent years ‘strategic alignments in Asia seem to be more fluid than unidirectional’.[13]

Costless signalling may be able to undermine the US security alliance in Asia, and consequently challenge US soft power globally. It is necessary for the US to impose a cost or penalty if the rhetoric goes too far; a consistent lack of a firm yet appropriate response will also spread the belief that East Asian diplomacy is not a zero-sum-game. Zero-sum politics in East Asia currently entrenches the deterrence of China as it does not allow major US regional partners to accommodate Chinese regional assertions and expensively ‘play-off’ China and the USA. Zero-sum politics is endangered further by Trump’s previous statements criticizing allied free-riding. Nonetheless the ending of this zero-sum-game via US regional allies reproaching China could be vital in the production of a genuinely positive and constructive relationship between the US and China. In a scenario other than the production of this seemingly elusive relationship, it may encourage a Chinese style Monroe Doctrine, or generally weaken the US security apparatus in the Asia-Pacific theater.

A lack of a responsible policy in light of Duterte’s kaleidoscopic politics and rhetoric has the long-term potential to unleash Pandora’s Box, encouraging other leaders who may harbor personal anti-US biases to engage in unpredictable, contradictory, and aggressive rhetoric while encouraging limited diplomatic realignments toward China. This could potentially jeopardize the US security alliance, prioritizing the pursuit of individual states national interests over collective security. Ultimately, as Prashanth Parameswaran emphasizes, it is still very early in the rule of Duterte who is a ‘domestic-focused president, [with] little foreign policy experience’.[14] The fortitude of Duterte’s foreign policy is certainly contributed to by the timing and scale of the US presidential election which is an opportunity for actors to seek positions of strength from which to ‘restart’ relations. Duterte can be perceived as seeking a stronger bargaining position through the testing of the US alliance system in Asia, via the creation of hurdles for the US and its allies to handle. If his behavior undertakes a contagion effect, the US may have multiple unpredictable actors to deal with which may create too many hurdles for current US security structures.


[1] http://globalriskinsights.com/2016/10/dutertes-priorities-mean-philippines/

[2] http://time.com/4547711/philippines-rodrigo-duterte-south-china-sea/

[3] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-philippines-duterte-idUSKBN1352QM

[4] https://www.csis.org/analysis/pacnet-80-us-philippine-alliance-stronger-you-think

[5] http://thediplomat.com/2016/10/the-truth-about-dutertes-popularity-in-the-philippines/

[6] http://time.com/4547711/philippines-rodrigo-duterte-south-china-sea/

[7] Nye, Joseph S. Soft Power. 1st ed. New York: Public Affairs, 2004. Print.

[8] http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2038993/china-philippines-agree-set-negotiation-mechanism

[9] http://www.scmp.com/news/asia/southeast-asia/article/2041992/china-mission-accomplished-philippine-peace-envoy-ramos

[10] Fearon, James D. “Domestic Political Audiences and the Escalation of International Disputes.” The American Political Science Review 88, no. 3 (1994): 577-92.

[11] http://globalriskinsights.com/2016/10/dutertes-priorities-mean-philippines/ & http://www.scmp.com/news/asia/southeast-asia/article/2042160/duterte-seen-talking-philippine-peso-beyond-50-dollar-hit

[12] https://www.csis.org/analysis/pacnet-80-us-philippine-alliance-stronger-you-think

[13] http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/11/malaysia-philippines-relations-china-161107101018957.html

[14] http://thediplomat.com/2016/10/the-limits-of-dutertes-us-china-rebalance/

Image source: Wikimedia.org

About the Author 

Vahe Boghosian is currently studying MSc Security Studies at the University College London. Mr. Boghosian’s research interests focus on Eurasian security policies.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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