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Duterte plays U.S. and China off each other, in echo of Cold War

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    Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, center, walks with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcome ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, last month.

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines traveled to Beijing recently, promising to announce his country’s “separation” from the United States and alarming the White House and his own defense secretary.

But something different happened. Instead, Duterte kept the alliance with the United States intact, appeared to reach an understanding with China to allow Filipino fishermen to return to disputed waters, and, by threatening a geopolitical realignment, distracted from U.S. objections to his country’s growing human rights abuses.

Rather than switch allegiances between the two nations, Duterte managed to play them off each other, in that way improving his position with both and cementing his image at home as a strong nationalist unbeholden to foreign powers. And he did it while keeping his nation’s security guaranteed by a 65-year-old treaty with the United States.

Whether he knows it or not, Duterte is following a strategy that leaders used throughout the Cold War: balancing between the powers by threatening to change loyalties. That strategy’s track record illuminates why Duterte’s seemingly reckless actions have borne him such fruit, and could offer a hint at his goals.

The historian John Lewis Gaddis called this a “new kind of power balancing” in his 2005 book, “The Cold War: A New History,” which chronicles midsize nations in Asia, Africa and Europe that won concessions from the Soviet Union and the United States by hinting they might swap sides.

Though these threats were often empty, the superpowers so feared losing ground against one another that they quickly catered to the whims of smaller countries.

“The very compulsiveness with which the Soviet Union and the United States sought to bring such states within their orbits wound up giving those states the means of escape,” Gaddis wrote. “Tails were beginning to wag dogs.”

Duterte’s actions call to mind, for example, Josip Broz Tito, the communist leader of Yugoslavia who broke with Moscow in the Cold War’s first years by declaring himself “nonaligned.” The United States rewarded him with economic aid; the Soviet Union, desperate to keep Tito from joining NATO, rewarded him with autonomy and shows of respect.

In the end, Tito won concessions from both sides, enhanced his image at home — and remained in the communist fold. Rather than becoming a victim of the Cold War, he exploited it to his advantage.

Duterte, likewise, distanced himself from his U.S. sponsors just enough that China, eager to win him over, offered him $9 billion in low-interest loans and allowed Filipino fishermen to return to certain disputed waters in the South China Sea. Yet Duterte returned home to a country that is still protected by the U.S. military.

“China didn’t woo Duterte. Duterte wooed China,” M. Taylor Fravel, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said of the deal in a Twitter post.

Fravel, in an interview, said he was “skeptical” that Duterte would follow through on his threats to cut ties with Washington, which he has already walked back. Still, the threats had helped him ease tensions with China.

“He thought the Philippines’ isolation from China was not good for the Philippines,” Fravel said. “And so he wanted to end that.”

Other Cold War leaders pitted the superpowers against each other as a means to win independence from them and extract concessions along the way. Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt took handouts from both sides, for instance, and relied on them to eject a 1956 invasion by British, French and Israeli troops.

China, now a target of this strategy, was once among its cleverest exploiters. Mao Zedong, though aligned with the Soviet Union for decades, bragged of wielding a pair of disputed islands in the Taiwanese Strait as “two batons that keep Eisenhower and Khrushchev dancing, scurrying this way and that.”

This sort of balancing has another benefit: giving leaders a freer hand to act against their patron’s wishes.

In the weeks before Duterte threatened to separate from the United States, Washington had withheld an arms sale and increasingly criticized his support for vigilante and police violence that has killed 2,000 people. Now, U.S. focus has shifted to preserving the alliance — something that security analysts doubt Duterte would ever really break.

Fravel suggested Duterte was really seeking Chinese economic aid and an end to U.S. pressure over his rights abuses — both more domestic than foreign issues.

Gaddis, in his 2005 book, wrote that leaders often exploited Cold War geopolitics to their domestic political advantage, using “the defiance of external authority as a way to enhance their own internal legitimacy.”

Had Mao fully aligned with the more powerful Soviet Union, for instance, there would have been less need for a strong leader in Beijing. By spurning both superpowers, he cultivated the perception that China was surrounded by enemies whom only he could balance, justifying his consolidation of control.

Duterte is no Mao, but his support of extrajudicial killings appears to be part of a larger strategy of strengthening his control, which includes his self-made image as an unapologetic nationalist.

Though the United States is popular in the Philippines, those attitudes are layered with a sense of wounded pride at being treated as less than equal. Duterte, by showing up the Americans (without actually expelling them), can indulge that latent nationalism. And by securing Chinese concessions, he can present himself as standing up to both powers.

And while Duterte is taking a risk by defying his own military leadership, which is deeply invested in the U.S. alliance, prevailing could improve his control of that institution.

The United States is no stranger to misbehaving allies. Even France, when it was led by Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s, repeatedly hedged against Western unity in the Cold War. De Gaulle withdrew from NATO, offered Mao diplomatic recognition and opposed British integration into new European institutions.

By acting out, de Gaulle cultivated French nationalism in a period of national decline (it was on the verge of losing a long war in Algeria) and consolidated his control over a country that was rived by unrest and by very real threats of a military coup.

While these practices declined with the Cold War’s end, Duterte would not be alone in deploying them since.

Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, whose authoritarian government has long been tied to Moscow, occasionally hints at a Myanmar-style opening to the West. In response, the European Union will grant him some concessions, Russia will offer him energy subsidies, and, in the end, nothing will change.

Great powers, it turns out, have little choice but to endure these small humiliations. Moscow probably sees Lukashenko’s game, but it cannot tolerate even the possibility of losing him to the European Union.

Even as de Gaulle gleefully insulted the Americans and undermined the U.S.-led order in Western Europe, Washington continued guaranteeing French security.

In a 1964 phone call, a frustrated Sen. Richard Russell, D-Ga., told President Lyndon B. Johnson, “We’ve really got no control over their foreign policy.”

Johnson, sounding very tired, according to an official transcript, responded, “That’s right. None whatever.”

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