The real ‘palit-ulo’

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Right under everyone’s noses, Digong is pulling off his biggest, most outrageous “palit-ulo” scheme. But it doesn’t involve killing anyone - the exchange is all about shifting emphasis from traditional diplomatic partners and cultivating new ones regularly eyed with suspicion by the old.

The peripatetic President Rodrigo Duterte, in his latest sojourn, has gone to meet his avowed “favorite idol,” the infamous Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation. The trip to Russia marks the completion of Duterte’s own version of a diplomatic pivot from usual economic, military and cultural partners the United States and Europe, to China and Russia.

If the US and the European Union considered Duterte’s previous diatribes against them to be mere populist hot air, his visits to Beijing and Moscow must be making them stop and rethink their position. Duterte is now openly talking about sending bananas to Russia in exchange for smart bombs for the Philippines; we’re way beyond Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos’ cultural exchanges in ballet and classical music with the old Soviet Union in the seventies here.

Of course, the official Palace line has always been that Duterte is not replacing his country’s old allies with new ones. He is merely befriending others with whom relations have not really bloomed in the past, given the gravitational pull that Washington has always exerted on America’s “little brown brothers” in Manila. 

But Duterte’s travels seem to proclaim otherwise. He has visited Beijing twice before going to Moscow; even after talking to Donald Trump on the telephone a couple of times, he is in no hurry to make the traditional Filipino leader’s pilgrimage to Washington. 

Nearly a year into Duterte’s term, he has not appointed an ambassador to Washington. (This is something that must make the Philippine experts in the State Department wonder no end if Duterte doesn’t realize that while presidents like Trump come and go, US diplomatic policy changes only at a glacial pace.) 

A visit to Europe in the coming days has about the same chances of happening, given the Duterte government’s recent rejection of “conditional” EU aid to Manila, as a trip to the moon. Really.

Of course, everyone knows how Putin and his country are at the center of the continuing controversy that is rocking the Trump administration to its luxury-condo foundations. That Duterte is now consorting with the man accused of everything from rigging the US elections to receiving secret intelligence information intended only for Trump must not be playing well over at State.

I understand perfectly that Duterte’s pivot to China and Russia is necessary, especially after the six years of slavish, unabashedly neocolonial “America First” policy of his predecessor. Duterte served notice that it is no longer diplomatic business as usual, first by shunning a trip to the US and opting to do the rounds of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (most of whose leaders have expressed their admiration for their firebrand and fiercely independent Philippine counterpart) and then by successfully hosting the Asean summit in Manila.

And now Duterte has gone to Moscow upon the invitation of Putin, whom he met at the Apec meeting in Peru. The pivot - or the “palit-ulo,” if you want - is complete.

* * *

I find myself cheering Duterte on as he expands the Philippines’ reach and drums up interest in our country as a haven for trade and investment, tourism and all sorts of bilateral interaction. That Duterte is making the usual First Salesman’s rounds while showing that the Philippines is no longer any other country’s vassal or yes-man makes the effort even more satisfying.

But at the same time, I can’t help but worry about the pushback from Washington and Brussels, especially since Duterte’s political enemies have always been aligned with these traditional partners. I wonder if those who would want to bring him down back home aren’t at this moment hatching plans to accelerate his removal, with the help of the still-powerful (and still prone-to-meddling) countries that have taken offense at Duterte’s dramatic policy shift. 

By going to Moscow and challenging hoary America- and EU-centric diplomatic policy, Duterte has proven that he has balls the size of his beloved Davao City. His diplomatic pragmatism is laudable, especially because it is couched on the vastly different geopolitical order of an increasingly insular US and a financially ravaged Europe, while both China and Russia aggressively expand their new-found influence.

(The potential economic returns are nothing to sneeze at, either. That nearly 300 Filipino businessmen - the biggest private-sector group to accompany Duterte on a foreign trip - accompanied the president to Moscow is certainly not an accident.)

For the entire country’s sake, I hope Duterte’s biggest gamble to assert his country’s independence on the world stage succeeds. The alternative - a return to the Yellow-cacique variety of elitist liberal neocolonialism - is simply unacceptable.