Duterte journeyed to Beijing this week to announce his “separation from the United States” in military and economic terms. “America has lost,” Duterte said. He claimed that a new alliance of the Philippines, China, and Russia would emerge — “there are three of us against the world.”
What do Duterte, Putin, and the Communist bosses in Beijing have in common? They're all thuggish autocrats who do what they want and try to bully their way when they can. The US actually cares about human rights and the rule of law, which gets in the way of kicking donkey and taking names. Putin and the Chinese junta don't care about those wimpy niceties and get 'er done.
Duterte is an ACLU lawyer's version of the Devil incarnate, having police and goon squads mow down suspected drug dealers by the hundreds, a mash-up of the Donald, Hugo Chavez and Sheriff Joe on acid. Of course, such a critter would question President Obama's sexual habits and prefer fellow strongmen to civilized girly-men.
Is this a strategic move to put the Philippines in the Chinese camp? The Max Boot Foreign Policy piece I linked to above notes that the Philippines trades far more with Japan, the US and other local nations than with China and China has grabbed islands off the Philippine coast that an international arbitration body ruled should be theirs. It doesn't make much economic or geopolitical sense to team with China and flip the bird to the US.
It does make some political sense. The US owned the Philippines for a half-century before letting them become independent after WWII; the colonial period wasn't pretty, as the US was as nasty to independence-seekers as Duterte is to narcos. Thus, a leftist like Duterte can make a case for sticking it to The Man who enslaved them in the first half of the 20th century and played the SOB-backing hegemon for much of the second half. The US then becomes the all-purpose populist whipping boy, Duterte use of that meme feels like Chavez use of his gringo light bag of choice.
That can work for a time. Filipinos have tossed would-be Il Duces before, as former movie tough-guy Joseph Estrada was forced from office when his shtick wore thin, prompting overwhelming protests that pushed him out the door. If Duterte continues to view his total war on drugs as more important than the general well-being of the nation and the region, a People Power III might be needed.
Interestingly, the Vietnamese are more than happy to have US ships in port. They aren't worried about ACLU types getting in the way, since they're a moderate communist dictatorship that somewhat copied Chinese's move to create a market economy under Party control, albeit a decade or so later. However, they are worried about their northern neighbor acting on their superiority complex and assuming that, since the South China Sea has their name on it, that the Chinese own it lock, stock, and (oil) barrel.
The geopolitically pragmatic Vietnamese would rather have their more-ethical former foe from across the Pacific as a counterweight to the Dragon above them that treats them as their kid brother. Duterte would rather be Bejing's she-dog than Washington's kid brother, since he looks more macho that way.