- The Washington Times - Monday, May 9, 2016

Rodrigo Duterte, the outspoken provincial mayor dubbed the Filipino Donald Trump for his pugnacious, off-the-cuff campaign style, is poised to become the Philippines‘ next president, just as the Pentagon is looking to the island nation as a critical partner to offset Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and stem Islamic State’s growing influence in the region.

While the formal results will be announced Tuesday, there seemed little doubt that the 71-year-old mayor of Davao City in the southern Philippines had racked up enough votes in the crowded field of presidential contenders, according to exit polling. His closest rival in the race, Mar Roxas — grandson of former Philippine President Manuel Roxas — trailed badly in the vote counting, and another key rival, Sen. Grace Poe, formally conceded.

In the campaign’s final days, Mr. Duterte again served up his fiery brand of campaign rhetoric that has propelled him to the top of the polls over the last six months and soon will put him into Malacanan, the Philippine presidential palace.

But while saying his tough law-and-order talk had helped fuel his win, a relatively restrained Mr. Duterte told reporters late Monday, “It’s with humility, extreme humility, that I accept this, the mandate of the people.”

Mr. Duterte’s campaign has been defined by his hard-line stances on everything from crime and trade to counterterrorism, punctuated by public comments that have confused and infuriated regional allies, experts and observers alike.

But it has been his ambiguous message on regional defense and his stand on China’s increasingly assertive South China Sea policy that have most concerned policymakers in Washington and across the region, who remain uncertain whether he will follow the more moderate, pro-U.S. approach of outgoing President Benigno Aquino.

At times during his controversial campaign, he has pushed back strongly at U.S. and Australian criticism, at one point threatening to dissolve Manila’s ties with the Philippines‘ biggest military allies if they shun him.

“If I become president, go ahead and sever [them],” Mr. Duterte told supporters at a campaign rally in April. “That’s their problem, not mine. I never interfered in their elections.”

Such rhetoric has captured the nationalistic undercurrent flowing through the Philippine electorate amid growing pressure from the sharp regional jockeying for control of the strategically important South China Sea.

But as tensions between Manila and Beijing over the South China Sea continue to rise, coupled with Islamic State’s efforts to forge new alliances with indigenous extremist groups in the country, it remains unclear whether President-elect Duterte will be up to the challenge.

Learning curve

As the new president seeks to transition from firebrand candidate to the most powerful man in the Philippines, the learning curve from regional mayor to world leader is precipitously steep, according to regional security experts.

His “occasionally colorful” comments have undoubtedly captured the imagination of the Philippine electorate, “but he will quickly learn that it is not adequate” when it comes to dealing with an assertive Beijing and other countries in the region, Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security.

A decision on a Filipino legal action brought by the Aquino government against China’s territorial claims in the nearby Spratly Islands is due from the U.N. Permanent Court of Arbitration in late May or early June. Manila and its allies, led by the U.S., have spent months preparing for the decision.

Naval drills such as Exercise Balikatan 2016, a U.S. Pacific Command — or PACOM — operation with the Philippines, Australia and regional observers, have put Manila at the center of what some analysts are calling one of the world’s hottest sovereignty disputes.

During the campaign, Mr. Duterte sent mixed signals about whether he wanted to confront or accommodate China.

He colorfully claimed he would be willing to ride a jet ski out to the Spratly Islands, the contested chain of islands in the South China Sea that the Philippines, China and others have laid claim to in recent years. But he said he’d make the trip in lieu of sending Philippine troops into an open conflict with China.

Pentagon officials could not be reached for comment regarding Monday’s election and the impact a Duterte victory would have on U.S. operations in the region.

But the rhetoric has raised larger fears of whether the new president has a basic understanding of the regional stakes at risk in those contested waterways, Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said.

Mr. Duterte’s public outcries can be easily dismissed as “grandstanding and machismo,” Mr. Poling said. “What worries me is he doesn’t know or just doesn’t care” what responses to his comments may come from Washington or Beijing. “That’s what worries me,” he added.

That said, Mr. Duterte will likely adhere to the national security policies of the outgoing Mr. Aquino, who has worked to improve ties with the U.S. military and agreed to the Pentagon’s plan to reestablish the presence in the Philippines lost when the huge Subic Bay Navy base closed in the early 1990s.

“When you get down to it, [Mr. Duterte] is a pragmatist,” Mr. Poling said.

He is “not morally opposed to the U.S.” military presence in the Philippines, Mr. Poling added, but he is looking for tangible commitments of Washington’s military support for the country.

In March the Aquino administration announced a deal with Washington to allow a rotating U.S. military presence at five Philippine bases.

Under the new security pact inked that month, that will include Antonio Bautista Air Base, close to the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, Basa Air Base north of Manila, Fort Magsaysay in Palayan, Lumbia Air Base in Mindanao and Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu, Reuters reported.

But in areas of defense and national security where Mr. Duterte could break from Mr. Aquino, “he will learn the hard way” that governing in Davao is not the same as Malacanang, Mr. Poling added.

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