Is Duterte playing Chess or Checkers?

2016 has been a tumultuous year for several world leaders trying to shape economies, policies and countries:  David Cameron gambling the fate of the U.K. with a vote leading to Brexit, Juan Manuel Santos failing to close the plebiscite on Colombia’s FARC deal after decades of negotiations, and Hillary Clinton miscalculating the most reviled candidate in a generation, leading to Trump’s White House victory.


Duterte is taking a similar audacious path — high-risk, high-payoff strategy mobilizing the Filipinos’ long-lost nationalistic fervor by singing populist chants of anti-US anti-EU tirades….  but is he gaining ground or will it hurt the country in the long-run?


Nothing is more dangerous than a pawn who thinks it is a queen” said President Kirkman (played by Keifer Sutherland) to the Russian ambassador in the new TV series, “Designated Survivor”.   Duterte’s recent meetings with Xi Jinping in Beijing and Putin at APEC in Peru, announcing a “separation” from the United States gives this statement real-life meaning.


Chess is a beautiful game, one that is impossible to play without a strategy.  There are 71,852 possible positions (first calculated correctly by St. Marie in 1903), but has several billion possible combinations to make the first four (4) moves, making the game still impossible for a computer decipher.  On the other hand, the algorithm for the much simpler game of checkers has already been solved by a team of computer scientists (Canadian Professor Schaeffer in 2007) making each game a predictable calculation.


“Brilliancy” is an unexpected move in chess, almost an illogical one, but one that always results in a spectacular win.  Winning the presidency, however, doesn’t always equate to an ability to play brilliantly in geopolitics.


President Pena Nieto of Mexico learned this the hard way….  I was in Mexico last August when Trump visited Mexico City.    Needing to boost his sagging popularity and assert his diplomatic prowess, Nieto unexpectedly agreed to a meeting with Trump.     Trump flew-in for a few hours, claimed a huge diplomatic win and controlled the narrative masterfully.  The Mexicans on the other hand castigated their president for not talking about the “wall”.  I saw the anger and shame of my Mexican business partners for a president badly outmaneuvered.  Nieto was used as a prop….  despite former president Vicente Fox’ apology to the world the next day on behalf of the Nieto while slamming his invitation, it was nevertheless a brilliant move by Trump.


Likewise, Duterte is a master of surprise diplomatic moves, but just like Nieto, it is extremely remote, indeed very far, from brilliancy.  Duterte is in his infancy in tenure — a long road with 5 1/2 years to go.  He is still fooling around with checkers with a highly predictable outcome, while the world is now engaged in an intricate game of chess.   It is time for him to level up his game, relying on strategy in lieu of the foul-mouth rhetorics he is known for.   A few points for consideration:


  1. Use leverage.

The Philippines used to have leverage and a global voice when it hosted the US bases.  But today?   Duterte guilelessly utilizes empty threats, such as disengaging the ill-equipped military from the US and realigning alliances towards China and Russia.

The country’s location, being at the geographic intersection of major trade routes, is an under-utilized leverage for the country.  Even more so since the ASEAN needs a strong regional leader.  The organization is disparate, unorganized, dysfunctional.  Duterte was treated like a rock-star in the recent ASEAN meeting — he could have simply grabbed the microphone and be the voice for a region that represents almost 10% of the world’s population.  The Philippines is a small country with an outspoken leader, and ASEAN is a sleeping opportunity that could be a powerful political block just waiting for an effective leader.


  1. Articulate a unifying message.

Hillary Clinton had a great message but oftentimes, she was unable to articulate it to the common man, costing her the White House.   Ironically, Duterte articulates his message extremely well, except that it is the wrong message.

The anti-drug war will continue to be criticized by Filipinos and the rest of the world given the blatant human rights violations.   This is now a damaged platform, no matter how Duterte spins it.   Worse, Duterte underestimated the intelligence of the youth.  Although martial law happened before their time, they quickly learned history and the truth of the Marcos plunder.  Arranging a hero’s burial for the ex-dictator further fractures a country that is already divided.  Clearly and hardly a unifying message, as exemplified this week at the EDSA rallies.

The war on drugs isn’t going to cut it.   Period.  Drug problem is a symptom….  and the disease isn’t cured by treating the symptoms.  And this brings me to my 3rd point….


  1. It’s the economy, stupid.

Duterte likes to talk about anything and everything except the economy, until recently.   Opening the telecoms and energy sectors to investors, he seemed to have learned a point or two at APEC which seems to tell the world that he has the capacity to drive growth.

The country is ready to reap the benefits from the foundations laid out by PNoy but Duterte is squandering it.

Duterte’s dalliance with the Chinese and Russians and its so-called “winning” trade agreements and infrastructure investments are simply small change for these emerging powers.  These gains come at a far higher price of legitimizing non-democratic philosophies, eroding business confidence and compromising long-term sovereignty.

It is one thing that he loathes the US because he was denied a visa decades ago, but it is entirely different (and idiotic, to say the least) to cozy up with China and Russia while antagonizing the US and the rest of the world (from the northern Nordic countries all the way south of Australia) awash with investors willing to invest in the Philippines.

If Duterte enacts clear business and economic policies that will revive investor confidence, he will be able to end the negative flow of money and thus cease the decline of the Philippine Stock Exchange.


Duterte continues to behave as if he is still Davao’s mayor — antagonizing time-tested allies, cuddling the Marcoses, and underestimating the intelligence of our youth.  If he is unable to elevate his game, the Philippines, at best, will continue to be led by a pawn, one that will be useful for the Russians and the Chinese.

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