The unbearable powerlessness of being

Manuel L. Quezon III
6 min readApr 26, 2024


Two decades of incumbency has made Rodrigo Duterte unused to losing clout

My two most recent columns look at two things. The first is the incredible shrinking clout of Rodrigo R. Duterte. It occurred to me (after I wrote my column) that while Duterte has managed retaining power even after relinquishing office (for example, when term limits necessitated a hiatus from his mayoralty (leading to his running for congressman at one point, and for vice-mayor, at another), he has never been an ex-president, a status that brings with it an inevitable diminishing power; he lacks proximity to the current office holder to maintain his clout).

The other, a phenomenon born of competition spurring a near-constant raising of the ante as far as military spending among rivals is concerned. I am not alone in concluding things could go awry:

But Washington’s pursuit of an increasingly complex lattice of security ties is a dangerous game. Those ties include upgrades in defense capabilities, more joint military exercises, deeper intelligence sharing, new initiatives on defense production and technology cooperation and the enhancement of contingency planning and military coordination. All of that may make Beijing more cautious about the blatant use of military force in the region. But the new alliance structure is not, on its own, a long-term guarantor of regional peace and stability — and could even increase the risk of stumbling into a conflict.

…In this increasingly contentious and militarized environment, the chance of some political incident or military accident triggering a devastating regional war is likely to grow.

The proposed solution, though, makes you wonder:

To prevent this nightmare, the U.S. and its allies and partners must invest much more in diplomacy with China, in addition to bolstering military deterrence.

There are other sources, many authoritative, that discuss these other elements of national power at great length and even with great passion. It is nevertheless striking that a report on the rise and fall of great powers composed by Chinese intelligence analysts with the words “national security” in its title has so little to say about diplomacy, strategy, or spycraft. Rise and decline are understood in techno-industrial terms. Everything else is either a distraction from or a downstream consequence of that fundamental.

In case you missed it, The Asia Sentinel published a piece of mine on FM Jr. and the recently-concluded Washington Summit featuring the presidents of the USA and the Philippines, and the PM of Japan: A Confident Marcos Returns to the White House. Another look at the same event comes from Dari Mulut ke Mulut.

Recently, on The Long View:

April 17, 2024:


Philippine Daily Inquirer / 05:15 AM April 17, 2024

The other day, Sen. Sonny Angara joked (after saying he was inclined not to seek office after his second Senate term ends next year) that he might run for the House of Representatives, after all, if only to abolish the Senate. With colleagues like Robin Padilla, the surprise isn’t a senatorial half-joke but rather, why Sonny isn’t an alcoholic. After all, it says a lot-and says little-about the Senate, that it’s the House threatening, at least through press releases, to investigate former president Rodrigo Duterte over his supposed “gentleman’s agreement” with the president of China.

In our constitutional setup, it’s really the Senate, which, by design, has a national constituency and perspective, that’s supposed to exercise oversight over the chief executive when it comes to foreign affairs-this is why the Senate alone ratifies or rejects foreign treaties entered into by presidents. Then again, the House can argue that at the rate its membership is going, it has to do something. Exhibit A: ex-speaker Pantaleon Alvarez and his invitation to the armed forces to withdraw support from the current Chief Executive.

All because the previous chief executive is blowing hot and cold about that alleged secret deal, a problem caused by his own people, one of whom said there was a deal, and another, that there wasn’t-with the ex-president thundering about the lack of education of the current President, when the latter opined that he was shocked at the idea of a secret deal in the first place.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs for its part has insisted there was, indeed, a “gentleman’s agreement” and an earlier one besides, to tow away the decaying landing craft whose lonely crew our armed forces keep resupplying. That’s Tiger Diplomacy for you-doing no favors to its own friends and allies.

Gathered in support of the exes-the ex-president and the ex-speaker, to name just two-in the former Promised Land of Davao, were several thousand New Loyalists carrying signs ranging from “Impeach BBM” to “Justice for Quiboloy.” Even in his home turf, the numbers didn’t dazzle, which, combined with the Apollo Quiboloy “prayer rally” in Cebu last February, shows the limitations of the ex-president’s popularity-and drawing power. It may still be the most sizeable, but it seems passive and not active. Put another way: the ex-president who took pride in killing people power so it couldn’t be used against him has also proven he can’t summon it for political purposes. No one doubts the former president’s headline-hogging, viral-causing abilities; but his bark is no longer matched by his bite.

The Vice President, for her part, is speaking softly and wielding a big stick. She has refused to comment on China, while her Hugpong ng Pagbabago has proceeded to expel the Uys from its ranks: the offense of the Uys-Davao del Norte Vice Governor Oyo, Davao de Oro Vice Governor Jayvee, Tagum Mayor Rey, as well as Davao de Oro Rep. Maricar Zamora-was their national affiliation with Speaker Martin Romualdez’s Lakas-CMD. All politics is local and the local “somos o no somos” challenge is already being made a year ahead of the midterms.

Having plumbed the depths of public-and surely, private-humiliation, the once-before and now-again First Family can look toward Davao and shrug. “Been there, done that.”

April 24, 2024:


Philippine Daily Inquirer / 04:30 AM April 24, 2024

As that old saying goes, a statesman thinks of the next generation, while a politician thinks only of the next election. Just the other day, the Republican Speaker of the House put his position on the line by ensuring the approval of billions of dollars in direly needed military aid to Ukraine-after having opposed such aid for some time. His change of opinion, said the Speaker, was due to the intelligence briefings that were given to him once he became head of the lower house.

During World War II, living in exile during a period when war made elections impossible, a Filipino leader told an American ex-official that the Philippines would do better to establish an alliance with Japan, than with China-even though Japan was, at the time, forcibly occupying the Philippines and China, like the Philippines, was part of the United Nations fighting the Axis powers. The reason, said the Filipino leader, was born of history: “Thinks it is a mistake to assume the Japanese are naturally an Empire and the Chinese not; on the contrary, the Chinese have always been imperialists when they were strong enough, and the Japanese only recently so,” adding some months later, “Japan should not be so crushed that China may arise in her place as the would-be dictator of the Orient.”

International relations are defined by competitions between nations, which should be won by the nation that marshals superior resources, makes use of territorial advantages, and throws vast populations into conflicts.

But scientific, technological, commercial, and political advancement can level the playing field.So, while a nation might occupy modest territory or have a comparatively small population, a technological advancement brought to bear against a competitor could be decisive.

But a strangely parallel series of scandals points to the problems faced by both countries, as they spend colossal amounts on defense, in order to put teeth to their diplomacy: all that money means many opportunities for corruption.

Visit and click on the “ in Focus” section to read “ Philippine wartime views on the future of Indonesia, China and Japan”; and visit to read “ CCP Elite on Tech + Great-Power Competition.”

Interesting Reads Department

Read Uri Berliner’s criticisms of NPR, and a NYT story on the fallout from the article.

Originally published at



Manuel L. Quezon III

Columnist, Philippine Daily Inquirer. Editor-at-large Views strictly mine. I have a newsletter, blog, podcast, and Patreon.