By now, we should realize that President Rodrigo Duterte’s angry and shocking words are not to be taken literally. Time and again, he has issued statements that are jokes or exaggerations. Riding a jet ski to the Spratlys to plant the Philippine flag? Slaughtering three million people? My foot!
Yet, the netizens and the media, local and foreign, swallowed Duterte’s announcement in China that he’d separate from the United States. Upon his return to Manila, Duterte, claiming that he’s bipolar, had a change of mind. He straightened out his previous statement, this time saying that it is in the best interests of the Philippines to maintain the relationship with the US.

Quite a few call Duterte a psychopath, a madman, a lunatic, etc. They underestimate the guy who is most manipulative and calculating, his overconfident enemies fall into his trap. The consequences of misjudging him are terrible. Look at how he has murdered Senators Leila de Lima and Sonny Trillanes.

Duterte sounds crude and unintelligible, but he has a better grasp than, say Noynoy Aquino, of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Some have dismissed my observation that Duterte has the mind and behavior of the Godfather Corleone. But someone who knows him well attests that Mario Puzo’s novel is Duterte’s bible.

Yet, those who have seriously studied Duterte can read him well. In gist: He is unpredictable. What he says has layers of meanings. He loves to cuss. He gets a kick out of provoking others. But accusations of extrajudicial killings easily provoke him. And what obsesses him is the war on drugs.

The US officialdom has read Duterte. Thus, US reactions to Duterte’s expletives and outbursts are mild and measured. More to the point, the statements from US officials are cool.

Asked about his reaction to Duterte’s insults, US President Barack Obama described Duterte clearly as a “colorful guy.” Asked about Duterte’s deriding him as a gay, outgoing US ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg said: “I’m a diplomat. I don’t respond to those comments, quite frankly.”

In response to the President’s statements during his China visit, including saying goodbye to America, US State Secretary John Kerry’s statement was polite and honest: “We are going to be seeking an explanation of exactly what the President meant when he talked about separation from us. It’s not clear to us exactly what that means and all its ramifications.”

The Economist also got its interpretation right: “But do the eyes deceive? American officials — from Admiral Harry Harris, commander in the Pacific, down — insist that all is dandy. Joint naval patrols continue, as does cooperation in Mindanao; and America still has five bases on Philippine soil. The close working relationship with Filipino counterparts, the Americans insist, is as strong as ever. The Filipinos, for their part, report no change of orders from the new chief.”

Indeed, the US prudent response of not playing the word war is paying off. Duterte returns to the Philippines from China, reaffirming the friendly relations with the US.

After all, Duterte is just playing a naughty game, a timeworn game reminiscent of the Cold War era. Pit China against the US. Squeeze the concessions that can be obtained from both China and the US.

It’s a game that China and the US have mastered through many generations. Thus, they can see through Duterte’s hostile and vulgar words. The Chinese officials might have even been embarrassed if not insulted by Duterte’s crude sycophancy.

Duterte cannot fool the US and China. He’s turning out to be a second-rate Prince. His crude, well-worn game is ineffective. Gastado.

Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.