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Column: Why the U.S. should care about the ‘Filipino Donald Trump’

This Monday, more than 40 million Filipinos will elect new leaders, from president to senators to mayors. And with a renewed U.S.-Filipino alliance, their choices could help determine how deeply America will be drawn into potential future conflicts, this time with China.

For more than a century, the United States has been deeply enmeshed in the politics and wars of the Pacific island nation of the Philippines. It has gone from colonial overlord to protector and patron and, more recently, absent friend of a poor country whose sometimes chaotic and often corrupt government are distilled from its Asian, European and American inheritances.

When the revered author and journalist Stanley Karnow wrote of the classic U.S. history with the Philippines, his book was titled, “In Our Image.” Little could even he have imagined how much this Philippine election would mirror the one in the United States.

It may be too easy a journalistic comparison and device, but inevitably the leading presidential candidate, Rodrigo Duterte, has been called the “Filipino Donald Trump.” The mayor of Davao City in the troubled Mindanao province (which is constantly confronted with communist and Islamist secessionist and terrorist movements) is known for speaking his mind; he even saw fit to bawl out Pope Francis for creating traffic jams in Manila.

He revels in his tough-guy persona and the reputation for keeping his city safe, sometimes, say human rights groups, with the help of death squads. Speaking recently to a Manila business group, he promised to round up drug dealers and feed them to the fish in Manila Bay.

But it is this comment at a campaign rally that made Trump look angelic in comparison. Duterte brought up the case of an Australian woman gang raped in a Philippine prison.

“I was angry because she was raped, that’s one thing,” he said. “But she was so beautiful, the mayor should have been first. What a waste.”

When the Australian and U.S. ambassadors went on television to say that rape was not a joking matter, Duterte told them to stop meddling in Philippine politics. He later apologized for the comments. Meanwhile, his poll ratings went up.

But Duterte’s shoot-from-the-hip style is not limited to personal outbursts. He has made contradictory statements on the issue that could determine the peaceful future of the Asia-Pacific region: the response to China’s claims to much of the South China Sea (and numerous rocks and islands, including the Scarborough Shoal, which China seized in 2012).

The Philippines has brought that seizure and China’s claims to an international tribunal in The Hague. A ruling is expected within months. The decision will represent a major turning point in how all the Pacific powers deal with South China Sea disputes in coming months and years.

China’s actions have helped draw the U.S. military back to the Philippines more than two decades after it was asked, in a burst of nationalism following the overthrow of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, to leave its huge bases at Subic Bay and Clark Field.

The United States and the Philippines are pushing ahead on recent agreements to deploy more U.S. planes and ships and to rebuild Philippine forces.

Presidential candidate Sen. Grace Poe shakes hands with supporters in Pandi, Bulacan in the northern Philippines on May 6. Photo by Ezra Acayan/Reuters

Presidential candidate Sen. Grace Poe shakes hands with supporters in Pandi, Bulacan in the northern Philippines on May 6. Photo by Ezra Acayan/Reuters

According to Southeast Asia defense analyst Marvin Ott, the stage is now set for what he calls “a perilous time.” What happens, he asks, if Chinese and Philippine ships clash around one of the islands? When and how firmly is the U.S. committed under treaties and agreements to intervene on the side of the Philippines and, possibly, to start a shooting war with China?

The door for a U.S. return to the Philippines was opened by outgoing President Benigno Aquino III, regarded both in Manila and Washington as probably the most effective leader since Philippine independence after World War II.  He is the son of former President Corazon Aquino and the late Benigno Aquino Jr., who helped lead the opposition against Ferdinand Marcos and was later assassinated.

Internationally, Aquino III has stood up to China’s claims; domestically, he has presided over 6 percent annual growth rates and one of the most dynamic economies in Asia. All this while trying to put a lid on corruption.

But as Philippine analyst Greg Rushford recently wrote, “The bad news is that none of the front-runners appears likely to continue Aquino’s reforms, which remain fragile and subject to reversal.”

Besides Duterte, the major contenders include Aquino’s Vice President Jejomar Binay, his former transportation minister Mar Roxas, and Sen. Grace Poe.

And to remind that the past is never far behind, the leading candidate for vice president (elected separately) is Bongbong Marcos, the son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda, who has been quiet during the campaign. And even if her shoe collection remains the most vivid image of the Marcos kleptocracy, she still has something of a following: Last year, I saw her being greeted warmly at the historic Manila Hotel where she was attending a high society wedding reception.

So far, the U.S. is maintaining diplomatic silence on the election, but the willingness of the ambassador to criticize the comments of the leading candidate indicate that silence won’t last indefinitely.

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