“We now have almost all the cards!” Red-Teaming Duterte
By Andrew Lim
Red-teaming is the practice of evaluating a problem from your adversary’s perspective. You sit in his chair and ask, “if I were in his position, how would I think and act?” It is used by corporations, governments, intelligence agencies and the like to enhance decision making; it challenges preconceived notions. It aims to find the weaknesses of both your opponent’s and your own position.
In recent popular history, red-teaming was used to assess the probability of Usama bin Laden hiding in that compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan. Since there was no visual confirmation of his presence, they had to resort to estimation based on the intelligence they could gather – drone surveillance, behavior of the household staff, house layout, etc. In turn, these assessments led to the course of action they took.
In this exercise, we will be assuming any of the following roles: a Chinese President (concurrent position as the secretary general of the Communist Party), a Politburo member, a Defense Minister, State Security Minister (intelligence) or a Chinese foreign policy analyst. We chose these positions because they require an expansive understanding of the situation and the issues involved. Additionally, these positions have the authority/influence to direct state agencies to act (e.g. send air assets or send diplomats to express disapproval).
We will make use of an imagined conversation of these characters in the aftermath of President Duterte’s visit to Beijing (plus Tokyo). Over the next few days, these officials discuss the South China Sea conflict during meetings, over tea, telephone conversations, or chance encounters in the corridors of power. It incorporates all the available information into the Chinese policy maker’s mind.
CHINESE PRESIDENT (CP): Well, that was a pleasant surprise, a bit strange but what a gift! One more card added to our pile. We reciprocated enough, I believe, just enough to keep him going. But we know where our interests lie. One goal, two approaches.
POLITBURO MEMBER 1 (P1): Yes, Mr President. That overture to form a troika with Russia was silly, but I get his point. Heh heh. If he’s willing to set aside the arbitral ruling for loans that will be repaid with interest anyway, for business partnerships that will benefit us as well, for a few billion dollars, it will still be a lopsided win for our side. Unfettered access to the Pacific. The riches of the seabed. Control over the sea and air lanes. We play the long game, Mr President.
POLITBURO MEMBER 2 (P2): Duterte’s foreign policy is a throwback to the 60s, 70s in my view. He’s outdated: he thinks we’re still aligned with Russia, and sees this whole non-aligned movement started by Nehru as still workable and relevant, even with globalization.
CHINESE PRESIDENT: We know the Filipino people are not on our side, not by a long shot. And Duterte has to deal with Congress as well. But that is one foot inside the door! Our ancestors had small feet, but now no more!
STATE SECURITY MINISTER (SSM): This is actually farther than we have gone before, Mr President. In the past, we used the enticement of building infrastructure through government to government partnerships but they all got cancelled. Today, even the company that’s building our military garrisons in the area will likely bag a contract to reclaim islands in Davao.
CHINESE PRESIDENT: By the way, what’s the status of our island-building?
DEFENSE MINISTER (DM): We’re still continuing build-up on the Paracels and Spratlys – we now have weapons handling, fuel storage, air defense missiles, fighter aircraft, anti-ship missiles. When completed, we will have facilities for harbors, communications, surveillance systems, logistics and airfields. The deep water canyons in the area would make excellent submarine sanctuaries.
FOREIGN POLICY ANALYST (FPA): Be careful, Duterte may just be like so many couples here, filing fake divorces to circumvent rules to get that second housing loan! Ha ha ha.
CHINESE PRESIDENT: Well, just like any other asset we have cultivated, we will just give him enough, but not too much. He is really obsessed with his anti-drugs campaign, so we’ll help him there. We will never comment on human rights abuses, but that has never been a concern for us. Tiananmen has been forgotten.
We think in thousands of years, while Filipinos think in six-year periods.
CHINESE PRESIDENT (to the Defense Minister): By the way, ease up on Scarborough Shoal. Let those poor Filipinos fish for now. We grabbed that piece to test everyone’s capacity to resist and to use as a concession chip in negotiations. Anyway, we can reverse on that later, and they can’t do anything about it.
DEFENSE MINISTER: Yes, sir.
POLITBURO MEMBER 1: Is there a scenario where Duterte comes running back to the US for support in case we tighten the screws on him?
CHINESE PRESIDENT: That’s why my immediate concern is how to further loosen the grip of the United States in the area. Other countries like Thailand and Malaysia seem eager to get on the gravy train. If we succeed with other countries, Duterte will have no one to run back to.
FOREIGN POLICY ANALYST: Layer by layer, we peel them, like an onion.
CHINESE PRESIDENT: It will be very hard for Duterte to swing back to the other side of the pendulum within his term, after all the dowry we have given him. That can likely happen with the succeding president, not him. So it is in our interest to help him remain in power. But we position that as “independent foreign policy.”
Besides, of what use is the arbitral decision now that he has gone bilateral?
DEFENSE MINISTER: May I add, Mr. President, that Duterte has visited Japan as well, affirming his support to Shinzo Abe. But I wonder what support can he give to Japan in real terms, since they have no money or arms? Besides, supporting Japan means aligning with US strategies . . .
CHINESE PRESIDENT: (smiling) That’s why Mr Duterte has nowhere to go really once he went to us. He has no more leverage. None.
STATE SECURITY MINISTER: Mr President, I want to report that we have finished building a large drug rehabilitation center for Mr Duterte. Others are in the works. It’s now an end-to-end integrated operation for us! (winking)
CHINESE PRESIDENT: Good. Patience, everyone. Almost all the cards are now in our hands.