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Philippine President Duterte may have to soften firebrand diplomacy after Obama insult

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's vulgar language may resonate with voters at home but it's causing ruptures abroad, leaving political pundits wondering just how long his firebrand diplomacy will last.

Since taking office on June 30, the 71-year-old has insulted international politicians, diplomats and organizations while defending his crackdown on crime and drugs.

"Bluster is part of Duterte's brand, and defending his nation in colorful terms will likely further endear him with voters," explained Phillip Orchard, analyst at intelligence firm Stratfor.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte walks up the stage for the opening of the ASEAN Summit in Vientiane on September 6, 2016.
ROSLAN RAHMAN | AFP | Getty Images

On Monday, though, he went a step further, calling U.S. President Barack Obama a "son of a b****" - a comment that prompted Washington to call off a bilateral meeting with Duterte at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Laos.

The leader's controversial remarks and hardline stance have earned him the nickname of "Asia's Donald Trump" and now, it appears both politicians may share another similarity. The Republican presidential candidate appears to have softened some of his rhetoric and policy positions in hope of appealing to the wider electorate, and Duterte may have to follow suit, albeit for different reasons.

"He's new to the job. At some point, he's likely to conclude that abiding by decorum and diplomatic norms generally would make it easier to get what he needs from the international community and that these kinds of outbursts only intensify the international spotlight," Orchard pointed out.

The Philippines' former United Nations (UN) envoy Lauro Baja mirrored that view.

"I think the president should be advised on the art of diplomacy and the implications of the strategic importance of approaches to the intricacies of international relations," Baja told local news outlet ABS-CBN on Tuesday.

Aside from Obama, Duterte has also slighted Arab culture, Pope Francis, the UN and the body's chief Ban Ki-moon, the Catholic Church, and U.S. ambassador to Manila Philip Goldberg. During his former role as Davao City mayor, he also joked about raping an Australian missionary and burning the Singaporean flag.

But none of his remarks have cost the Philippines any serious damage yet.

"Duterte is not representative of the Philippines at large, though he does echo the positions of a vocal minority," Gregory Poling, a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said. "He was elected on a domestic populist platform, not because he is in step with the Philippine electorate on foreign policy."

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For example, the U.S.-Philippine alliance is based on shared interests and values among the two nations, not the personal relationship between leaders, so Washington was unlikely to punish Manila for Duterte's comments, Poling noted.

And despite an on-going conflict with China over territorial claims in the South China Sea, Beijing has largely escaped Duterte's insults, indicating the president could be more temperate if he chose.

"When it comes to China, he's actually way more pragmatic and extremely measured," Richard Heydarian, political science professor at De La Salle University, recently told CNBC.

In fact, there could be a diplomatic purpose to Duterte's apparently undiplomatic manner, Heydarian said. Speaking rudely about the U.S. was a way of indicating the Philippines' independence, he explained. Washington wanted to form a informal coalition and push back on Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, but Duterte wasn't interested in that, according to Heydarian.

Going forward, however, there is a risk that Duterte's next target may not react as calmly as Washington did this week.

"Duterte's populist theatrics could prove more problematic with countries where tensions are already running high," Orchard warned. "The biggest risk is that an ill-timed insult during a delicate negotiation sparks a nationalist backlash abroad, making it more difficult for his counterpart to compromise."

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