Fed up with elites, voters flock to a populist outsider with an admired but checkered past, a macho persona and a record of insulting women, foreigners and the pope. He distrusts allies and promises to cut deals with adversaries. Is he destined to be a destabilizing leader? Or would responsibility moderate him?
U.S. allies mull these questions as they watch Donald Trump, but now Americans are asking similar questions about an important ally: the Philippines, which last week elected tough-talking city mayor Rodrigo Duterte to a six-year term as president. Philippine cooperation is crucial to checking aggressive Chinese action in the South China Sea, but Mr. Duterte seems to want to accommodate Beijing.
In 2013 the Philippines went to a United Nations court to challenge China’s notorious claim to nearly the entire South China Sea, an area larger than the Mediterranean that stretches 1,000 miles from Chinese shores. China reacted furiously, yet Manila wouldn’t drop its case. The verdict is now due within weeks and is expected to rebuke Beijing.
Which makes Mr. Duterte’s views on the subject curious. “I have a similar position as China’s,” he said in March. “I don’t believe in solving the conflict through an international tribunal. China has said it will not abide by whatever the tribunal’s decision will be.” His campaign soon walked this back, but it was telling.
This is where Mr. Duterte’s famous personality may come in. As mayor of the formerly crime-ridden city of Davao, he earned the nickname “Dirty Harry” for backing vigilante hit squads. His law-and-order message is popular, but the emphasis is more on order than law. It seems consistent, then, that he rejects the current administration’s faith that international law can be a “great equalizer,” or at least a good asymmetrical defense, against China.
Mr. Duterte puts his faith in the art of the deal. “Build us a railway just like the one you built in Africa and let’s set aside disagreements for a while,” he said of China during the campaign. He sometimes talks tough, as in promising to take a jet ski and plant a flag on a disputed island, but mainly he declares openness to bilateral talks and joint resource development with Beijing. That would break from current policy—and echo past failures.
In 2004, Manila and its neighbors were negotiating with China as a bloc, preventing it from using bilateral talks to divide and conquer. Then President Gloria Arroyo struck a secret deal with Beijing for joint oil exploration in Philippine waters, including areas Beijing hadn’t even claimed. The deal eventually fizzled as Ms. Arroyo faced allegations of corruption, including kickbacks from Chinese firms, for which she was later arrested. But it paralyzed regional diplomacy for years, to Beijing’s benefit.
Benigno Aquino took office in 2010 stressing bilateral cooperation, much like Mr. Duterte today. He pulled Manila’s envoy from the Nobel Prize ceremony for Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, among other gestures. Yet Chinese vessels soon drove a Philippine survey ship from Reed Bank, well within Manila’s waters, then in 2012 occupied Scarborough Shoal.
Mr. Duterte could review this history with Albert Del Rosario, Manila’s top diplomat from 2010 until this year. As Mr. Del Rosario told me last year, the Aquino government initially had a written understanding with Beijing that maritime disputes aren’t “the sum total of our relationship,” so they’d advance bilateral ties “while abstracting the difficult challenges and working on that separately.” But after Xi Jinping came to power in late 2012, Chinese leaders told Manila, “This is a different government.”
And so it was. “At this point, we cannot stand alone,” Manila’s defense secretary said in 2013 as he sought more military assistance from the U.S., Japan and others. “We need to form alliances. If we don’t, bigger forces will bully us, and that is happening now.” A 2014 agreement invited U.S. troops and weapons to Philippine bases, a dramatic reversal from Manila’s 1991 closure of all U.S. bases.
But now it’s Manila’s turn to have a different government. Though Mr. Duterte backs the new U.S. basing agreement, he has also denounced the U.S. presence in Mindanao, his home region, where al Qaeda-linked terrorists have long operated.
Last year he said he feels “hatred” for the U.S. over a mysterious 2002 bomb explosion in a Davao hotel for which he blames the FBI. He has denied U.S. drones access to Davao for counterterror operations and in 2006 refused to take the job of Philippine defense minister because of concerns about working with Washington.
Then there’s the South China Sea. “America would never die for us,” he told a group of foreign military attaches last year. “If America cared, it would have sent its aircraft carriers and missile frigates the moment China started reclaiming land in contested territory, but no such thing happened.”
“America is afraid to go to war,” he said weeks later. “We’re better off making friends with China.”
Recent years suggest that China’s idea of friendship isn’t consistent with Philippine sovereignty or freedom of the seas. These are big reasons why the Filipino public is so down on China and keen on the U.S. But Mr. Duterte, apparently, still needs convincing.
Mr. Feith is a Journal editorial writer based in Hong Kong.