President Trump has invited Rodrigo Duterte, the mercurial president of the Philippines, to the White House. In a similar move, he also says he might meet with Kim Jong-un of North Korea. President Duterte, like his North Korean counterpart, might well be mentally ill; his unpredictable rants (which make President Trump’s look sedate) do not suggest stability. Regardless, if at all possible, America needs Duterte on its side.
Duterte’s value to the United States does not, as Reince Priebus oddly suggested over the weekend, have to do with North Korea. Duterte has very little economic or policy relevance to the problems we have with Kim Jong-un’s regime. He’s important, rather, because of China – and specifically, because of his policy towards China’s island-construction campaign. The successor to Japan’s expansionism in the 1930s, China’s island imperialism in the East and South China Seas has two objectives. First, it seeks to establish control over the vast trade flows (including energy-related ones) through those waters. Second, it seeks to push out U.S. military forces. If China succeeds, regional governments will become subjects to an authoritarian empire with a placid name: the Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank.