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Emerging patterns from Duterte’s erratic rhetoric

HONG KONG (SE): Despite the highly confusing and seemingly contradictory statements on foreign policy articulated by the president of The Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, some patterns are beginning to emerge.

His belligerence towards the nation’s longtime ally, the United States of America (US), and softer approach towards China—despite the latter’s flat refusal to recognise Manila’s claim to the South China Sea—need to be looked at in the light of what he has made his first priority after murdering the poor; peace in Mindanao.

The ongoing insurgencies instigated by the New People’s Army and other groups like the Abu Sayyaf, he sees as a bigger block to national security as well as the financial development of the nation, than any of the threatened pyrotechnics China may produce in the South China Sea.

He was quick to resurrect the long-stalled peace talks with the Communist Party of The Philippines being brokered by Norway and moved to clear the way for them by installing several sympathisers in his cabinet.

But for both the New People’s Army and the Communist Party, the presence of troops from the US in the country has always been a stumbling block, so his move to cut back their presence from several hundred to 50 at the most and vilify them in his chats with his own military is a friendly card dealt in their direction.

It is then maybe not so surprising that on September 21, the Abu Sayyaf released a hostage, who had been held since he was abducted from a fancy resort in Davao del Norte on September 21 last year, even though the two Canadians picked up with him were beheaded, supposedly because of a refusal to pay ransom.

Sixty-eight-year-old John Ridsel and 67-year-old Robert Hall both lost their heads, while Marites Flor, a Filipino, was released. 

Then seemingly out of the blue, Kjartan Sekkingstad, a 56-year-old from the country that is brokering the peace talks in Oslo, was released in Jolo.

Even though, despite the official denials, it has been reported that a ransom was paid, it is usually diplomatically spoken of as expense money to cover the costs of the kidnap operation and upkeep while in captivity.

UCAN reported that a spokesperson for the Abu Sayyaf, Abu Ramie, said Sekkingstad’s family paid US$638,000 ($4.95 million) for his release.

As with the kidnapped Columban Father Mick Sinnott in 2009, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front was involved in the negotiations for the Sekkingstad release and he thanked Nur Misuari, the founder of the movement, whom he said “got me out of captivity.”

Duterte seems to be a lot more interested in creating a viable peace in this troubled part of his nation than he is in ensuring safe transit lanes for international shipping in the South China Sea, where his main priorities appear to be fishing rights and a share in the oil and gas riches of the area.

While the volatile Philippine president has had a few digs at China, they have mostly been fairly innocuous pinpricks.

He appealed to his big brothers in Beijing to do more to cut off the supply of drugs coming into his country, saying that the equipment confiscated at a meth manufacturing plant was all Chinese made.

“What does that mean?” he asked. Well, actually it means little, except that the worldwide drug trade is a far wealthier and better resourced industry than either the Chinese or Philippine governments.

In his bid to clean up the Philippine landscape, he has also closed several mines, including Chinese-owned ones, but the real crunch is whether he can force them to pay the cleanup costs of the damage they have caused.

But peace in Mindanao remains his primary political target.

Mack Williams, a former Australian ambassador to The Philippines during the critical years of 1989 to 1994 when negotiations for the dismantling of the giant US bases were getting under way, points out that Duterte also knows that any military confrontation would be a total disaster for his country and more especially so if the US had any major military foothold on its territory.

Williams says that this has led the new boy in Malacañang to search for some way of engaging with China that will give him fishing, oil and gas rights, while at the same time avoiding any military confrontation.

Williams notes, “The two key cards he might hope to play, would be first, the prevention of any US military build-up in The Philippines and second, more openings for new Chinese business interests in The Philippines in return for some form of joint or co-development of resources.”

He adds that this also seems to be paying off, as already there have been some signs of the Chinese offering to become involved in infrastructure projects, which already have a strong foothold through the millennium-long presence of Chinese business people in the country.

But while the international community is shining its spotlight on keeping the busy shipping lanes of the South China Sea safe for its container vessels and oil tankers, it is not the only strategically important stretch of water in the region.

The Sibutu Chanel, a 19-kilometre wide stretch of deep water running between two occupied reefs and close to Sabah, remains a threat.

In highlighting the international importance of peace in Mindanao, Williams points out that the channel has recently come within the reach of the Abu Sayyaf, but as the main passage of mineral exports from Australia into northern Asia, it is also an important route for international shipping that needs protection.

“Sibutu is a real choke point… and all of it is inside Philippine national waters,” Williams points out.

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