MANILA: After proposing a jet-ski mission to defend remote islands against China, daring the United States to sever ties and joking about burning Singapore’s flag, Rodrigo Duterte is set for a wild foreign policy ride as the next Philippine president.
The firebrand politician stormed to victory in national elections this week using an incendiary brand of populism and nationalism that his aides insist he will moderate once he has the keys to the presidential palace on June 30.
Duterte branded the pope a “son of a whore” and angrily told the US and Australian ambassadors to “shut their mouths” after they criticised a joke he made about rape.
The 71-year-old offered no apologies when asked by AFP on election night for a message to members of the international diplomatic community who may be concerned.
“It is not to contribute to the comfort of other nations. I have to make the Filipino comfortable first before I give you comfort, outside my country,” he said.
Duterte, the long-time mayor of southern Davao city, thrilled his supporters but outraged his critics with a series of diplomatic firebombs on the campaign trail.
While his insults caused gasps in various capitals, his foray into a delicate maritime dispute with China — involving many nations but with the Philippines a key player — may have the most far-reaching impact.
Playing to nationalist sentiment, Duterte vowed to ride a jet ski to plant a Philippine flag on remote South China Sea islands, where Beijing is accused of using bully-boy tactics to intimidate smaller nations with rival claims.
But he also signalled a potentially signficant reversal of government policy, saying he would be prepared to hold direct talks with China on the issue — potentially shattering the united front of claimant nations backed by the United States.
“By the Philippines breaking ranks over this issue, it might affect… efforts to fend off China’s intrusion. There is a need to be united over this issue,” said Faisal Syam Hazis, head of the Centre for Asia Studies at the National University of Malaysia.
Other foreign policy stumbles sprang from Duterte’s no-holds-barred election pitch. At one rally he recounted how he had personally killed inmates who had staged a 1989 Davao prison riot.
But he also said that in the aftermath of the riot he discovered that an Australian missionary had been raped and murdered.
“I was mad she was raped. But she was so beautiful. I thought: ‘The mayor should have been first’,” said Duterte, who on the campaign trail also repeatedly boasted about his mistresses and sexual prowess.
The Australian and US ambassadors criticised the comments, triggering a furious reaction from the contender, who told them not to interfere and raised the prospect of cutting diplomatic ties.
Duterte also enraged Singapore when he said at a rally he would burn its flag in reaction to its embassy disavowing a hoax statement which purportedly said it endorsed him.
A different Duterte?
Diplomats can expect a different Duterte when he becomes president, according to his spokesman, Peter Lavina.
“You have to understand the Philippine style of elections. The context is most of our politicians need to communicate to our audience so many of our politicians sing and dance,” Lavina told reporters on Tuesday when explaining that the Singapore flag burning remark was a joke.
“Some make jokes, some make funny faces. Some dress outrageously. So it is all in this context that all these jokes, bantering, happen during the campaign. We don’t expect the same attitude of our officials thereafter.”
Lavina acknowledged there were “problems” with the US, Australian and — particularly — the Singaporean embassies.
“We need to send out personal envoys to open lines of communication and express openness to cooperate,” he said.
However on election night Duterte appeared to still be in campaign mode when asked if would seek to fix ties with the United States and Australia.
“I will not mend,” he said. “It is up to them if they want to mend their ways.”
In China, at least, his foreign policy platform has been welcomed — despite the jet ski jibe.
Relations went into deep freeze during the current administration of President Benigno Aquino due to the maritime dispute which has seen Washington send warships close to the islands.
“The United States will be concerned if, in the new regime, they have a leader that is more willing to negotiate some of the… red lines that are shaping up around the South China Sea disputes,” said Ashley Townshend from the University of Sydney.
The Communist Party-backed Global Times on Wednesday sounded a hopeful note.
“He opposes the idea of going to war with China, wants direct negotiation with Beijing about the South China Sea, and doesn’t believe in solving the conflict through an international tribunal,” it said.
“If there is anything that can be changed by Duterte, it will be diplomacy.”