China Centre Tübingen (CCT)

Workshop: Duterte's Pivot to China: Towards a New Regional Order?

Mark R. Thompson is head of the Department of Asian and International Studies (AIS), and director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre (SEARC), both at the City University of Hong Kong. He has previously held positions in Germany (Erlangen-Nuernberg, and Dresden) and the United Kingdom (Glasgow). He was Lee Kong Chian distinguished scholar of Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore and Stanford University as well as a visiting professor at Kyoto University and Passau University. A Rotary Foundation scholar at the University of the Philippines in 1984–1985, he was visiting fellow at the Institute of Philippine Culture, Ateneo de Manila University 1986–1987 and completed his Ph.D. in 1991 in political science at Yale University with Juan J. Linz and James C. Scott as supervisors with his dissertation later published as The Anti-Marcos Struggle (Yale 1995). He is also the author of Democratic Revolutions (Routledge, 2004), co-editor of Dynasties and Female Political Leaders in Asia (2013), and the author of a number of journal articles on Asian politics, most recently “Democracy with Asian Characteristics,” Journal of Asian Studies, 74, no. 4 (November 2015) and, together with Stephan Ortmann, “China’s ‘Singapore Model’ and its Limits,” Journal of Democracy, 27, no. 1 (January 2016). He is currently completing a co-authored book manuscript about the Philippine presidency.

Suggested Readings

Mark R Thompson, “The Early Duterte Presidency in the Philippines: Introduction,” Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, Vol 35, No 3 (2016) [The entire issue on the early Duterte presidency is available in this open access journal at:]

Julio C. Teehankee and Mark R Thompson, “The Vote in the Philippines: Electing a Strongman,” Journal of Democracy, 27:4 (October 2016), pp. 124-134.

Mark R Thompson, “The Specter of Neo-Authoritarianism in the Philippines,” Current History, September 2016, pp. 220-225.

Rodrigo R. Duterte’s so-called “pivot to China” represents a dramatic reversal of his predecessor’s anti-China and pro-American foreign policy. Duterte has opted for a transactional, return-maximising policy towards China. It appears to be a case of illiberal realignment as he scores nationalist points by refusing to relent to criticism from the West, and the US in particular, due to human rights concerns related to the Philippine president’s violent drug crackdown, although his anti-US nationalism has deeper roots in the legacies of US colonialism and a personal run-in with US authorities when he was a mayor. Despite continuing tensions over territorial disputes in the South China, Duterte has been careful not to offer similar verbal jabs against China, which he portrays as a good Asian neighbor that has also suffered under the depredations of Western colonialism and helps poorer countries with development assistance. Duterte is the first Filipino leader since independence to be openly nationalist, rhetorically anti-Western leader. But ties to the US military remain strong given the Philippine dependence on U.S. hardware and training while relations with the US have proved easier under Donald Trump, who seems to have little interest in criticising Duterte or any other US ally for human rights violations. Duterte may have calculated that the US also needed the Philippines as a base for power projection and therefore had leeway if he turned diplomatically and economically towards China, making him appear a clever strategist. The Philippine example of hedging may serve as an example to other Southeast Asian countries. But China-US balancing will become increasingly tricky and will further undermine unity in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with some countries increasingly unwilling to join any initiatives to curb China’s territorial ambitions in the region.