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Understanding Duterte’s pivot to Asia strategy

Two of President Duterte’s closest friends among Asian leaders are Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping. During the latter’s state visit last year, Duterte said that he and President Xi are committed to forging a new legacy of friendship and cooperation while working together to further consolidate the close ties between the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China, adding that the Philippines-China friendship is bound by centuries of trade and interaction. Not to be outdone, the Japanese leader said during a state visit to the Philippines that he aims to do the best thing he could in the face of the shifting balance of power in Southeast Asia: Be a better friend than China. This elicited a reply from Duterte, assuring Abe that “we remain your true and loyal partner.”

If the President’s overtures to China and Japan are nothing but subtle, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. explains what prompted the Chief Executive to deepen Philippine ties with the two countries. He said: “China’s offer of a strategic partnership is a bit more attractive than the current offer of the US of strategic confusion.” Locsin recalled how former President Barack Obama, on a visit to Manila in 2014, didn’t give a clear assurance that the US would defend the Philippines against China in case of a conflict in the South China Sea. Since then, President Donald Trump’s administration has been at pains to stress, “we have your back.”

Locsin, however, added: “It has always been clear, that in a war, we are allies of the United States. There’s no question about that.”

We have no reason to doubt that Duterte has the country’s interest at heart when he declared his “pivot to China,” considering the changing geopolitical order in the region. In his book, The Future is Asian, Parag Khanna said: “In the 19th century, the world was Europeanized. In the 20th century, it was Americanized. Now, in the 21st century, the world is being irreversibly Asianized.” 

Khannasaid the Belt and Road Initiative is the most significant diplomatic project of the 21st century, the equivalent of the mid-20th-century founding of the United Nations and World Bank plus the Marshall Plan all rolled into one. The crucial difference: BRI was conceived in Asia and launched in Asia and will be led by Asians. This is the story of one entire side of the planet—the Asian side—and its impact on the 21st-century world.

Khanna said that although China has taken the lead in building the new Silk Roads across Asia, it will not lead it alone. Rather, Asia is returning to the stable multipolar order that existed long before European colonialism and American dominance, with India and Southeast Asia coming into their own as economic and strategic hubs.

Calling the 21st century the “Asian Century,” Khanna explained that Asia accounts for 60 percent of the world’s population. It has 10 times as many people as Europe and 12 times as many people as North America. As the world population climbs toward a plateau of around 10 billion people, Asia will forever be home to more people than the rest of the world combined.

Duterte’s efforts to cultivate closer ties with Xi and Abe clearly reflect his pragmatism. As Khanna said, Asia produces and exports, as well as imports and consumes, more goods than any other region, and Asians trade and invest more with one another than they do with Europe or North America. Asia has several of the world’s largest economies, most of the world’s foreign-exchange reserves, many of the largest banks and industrial and technology companies, and most of the world’s biggest armies.

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