Unease as Duterte visits Vietnam

New source of instability - President Duterte will be greeted cautiously by Vietnam. Photo courtesy Reuters

New source of instability – President Duterte will be greeted cautiously by Vietnam. Photo courtesy Reuters

Volatility and unpredictability have been the hallmarks of Philippine foreign policy since Rodrigo Duterte became president earlier this year.

Vietnamese leaders, alarmed by the implications of his gyrations for the confrontation in the South China Sea, will try to seek clarity from the new leader during his visit to Hanoi this week.

The military alliance between the United States and the Philippines has been the key pillar in efforts to resist China’s growing push for control in the disputed waters.

So Mr Duterte’s recent angry denunciations of the United States, and his calls for closer relations with China, are seen as a threat to regional solidarity, and could seriously undermine Vietnam’s own stand against Beijing.

Mr Duterte has made clear he’s happy to discuss the South China Sea in his talks with President Tran Dai Quang and other top leaders in Hanoi.

Vietnamese officials, however, will not  know how much weight to put on the words of a national leader noted for his emotional outbursts and abrupt reversals on key policy questions.

“Open alliance with China”

It is ironic that it was the Philippine legal challenge to China over the disputed Spratly Islands that gave Vietnam and other Southeast Asian claimants their biggest moral victory to date against China.

Vietnam was not a party to the case, but it received a significant boost from the arbitration panel’s conclusion that China had no valid historical claim to most of the South China Sea and the territory within it.

Mr Duterte, however, has shown much less enthusiasm than his predecessor for confronting China and challenging its growing military presence in the South China Sea.

He has called for direct talks with Beijing, a concession to a long standing Chinese demand, and spoke this week of “open alliances” with Russia and China.

That concept remains vaguely defined, but Mr Duterte has also said that his relationship with the United States is close to the point of no return.

Fury at the US and the European Union for criticism of his campaign of extermination against suspected drug traffickers appears to have gone some way to provoking Mr Duterte’s search for new allies.

New source of instability

The implications for Vietnam are potentially stark.

It has been enthusiastic about a United States military buildup in the region as a counter balance to China’s growing power.

A significant breach between Manila and Washington would seriously weaken the strategic position of the US in Southeast Asian waters.

Ideological divisions between Hanoi and the US, and the legacy of mistrust and war between them, means that Vietnam is unable to offer the United States naval and air bases on its own territory.

China has so far reacted cautiously to Mr Duterte’s overtures. The latest reports suggest that a planned visit to Beijing by his nominated envoy, the former president Fidel Ramos, has been put on hold. Beijing will be fully aware that Mr Duterte’s volatility can cut both ways, but will work to secure any advantage from the change in Manila.

Vietnam’s policy, as always, will be to tread cautiously and continue to develop friendships where it can find them, from Paris to Delhi, Tokyo and Canberra.

There will be talk of strengthening strategic partnerships and closer cooperation during Mr Duterte’s visit to Vietnam.

But for all the diplomatic pleasantries, the new Philippine leader can only be seen in Vietnam as an unwelcome wild card whose actions add  a new source of instability to an already perilous neighbourhood.