The Philip­pines just blew up Obama’s Asia pivot

The Myanmar Times - - News | Views - ELI LAKE news­room@mm­times.com

DOES any­one re­mem­ber US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia? The plan was to fo­cus diplo­matic and mil­i­tary as­sets in East Asia to con­tain a ris­ing China. It was one of the rea­sons Mr Obama said he was shrink­ing the Amer­i­can foot­print in the Mid­dle East.

Well, the pivot is fail­ing. On Oc­to­ber 20, the pres­i­dent of the Philip­pines, Ro­drigo Duterte, an­nounced to an au­di­ence at the Great Hall of the Peo­ple in Bei­jing a “sep­a­ra­tion” with the US. “Amer­ica has lost now,” he said. “And maybe I will also go to Rus­sia to talk to [Pres­i­dent Vladimir] Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philip­pines and Rus­sia. It’s the only way.” Two things should be said here. First: Mr Duterte is a crude vul­gar­ian. He has called Mr Obama a “son of a whore”, and picked a fight with the pope. As a politi­cian he is of­ten com­pared to Don­ald Trump. As a pres­i­dent, he has acted like an au­thor­i­tar­ian, wag­ing a para­mil­i­tary war against his na­tion’s drug users and drug deal­ers.

Sec­ond: Duterte’s own gov­ern­ment ap­pears to have been kept out of the loop about this new al­liance. On Oc­to­ber 21, Mr Duterte him­self said he did not mean to im­ply that he would cut diplo­matic ties with the US, but he has not backed away from his pledge to end mil­i­tary co­op­er­a­tion with the US, though oth­ers in his gov­ern­ment have sug­gested he will back down.

Re­gard­less, this is a big story. The Philip­pines has been an im­por­tant US ally since the be­gin­ning of the Cold War. What’s more, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has in­vested in the coun­try as part of its pivot to Asia. In 2014, the two coun­tries signed an en­hanced de­fence co­op­er­a­tion agree­ment. When the Philip­pines brought a case against China at The Hague over China’s ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands in its ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters, the US sup­ported the Philip­pines diplo­mat­i­cally.

In July, The Hague’s Per­ma­nent Court of Ar­bi­tra­tion ruled in favour of the Philip­pines. This would have been an op­por­tu­nity for the US to turn the screws on China. But in­stead, the Obama White House en­cour­aged China and the Philip­pines to re­solve the mat­ter them­selves af­ter the rul­ing of the in­ter­na­tional tri­bunal.

At the end of Au­gust, Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry told re­porters that the US was not in­ter­ested in “fan­ning the flames of con­flict but rather try­ing to en­cour­age the par­ties to re­solve their dis­putes and claims through the le­gal process and through di­plo­macy”.

Mr Duterte has now taken Mr Kerry’s ad­vice. Af­ter an­nounc­ing his coun­try’s new align­ment with China, Mr Duterte signed a series of trade agree­ments worth US$13.5 bil­lion, along with a prom­ise to con­tinue bi­lat­eral ne­go­ti­a­tions over the South China Sea.

Dan Blu­men­thal, the di­rec­tor of Asia stud­ies at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, told me that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion had fum­bled. “Af­ter the tri­bunal de­ci­sion, our re­sponse was to tell Duterte to tamp down ten­sions and talk bi­lat­er­ally with China, and there was no ev­i­dence of fol­low-up by us in terms of our own mil­i­tary ex­er­cises or diplo­matic ini­tia­tives to en­force the find­ings of the tri­bunal,” he said. “There has been next to noth­ing on this. We still haven’t had a Free­dom of Nav­i­ga­tion mis­sion that ac­tu­ally chal­lenges the Chi­nese ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands.”

Is it any won­der then that Mr Duterte con­cluded Mr Obama wasn’t se­ri­ous about de­fend­ing the rule of law in the South China Sea? Close watch­ers of the Fil­ipino leader could have pre­dicted this kind of thing. Be­fore his cam­paign for the pres­i­dency in Au­gust 2015, he told sup­port­ers, “If Amer­ica cared it would have sent air­craft car­ri­ers and mis­sile frigates the mo­ment China started re­claim­ing land in con­tested ter­ri­tory.”

Of course Amer­ica didn’t do that. It didn’t even send the Navy into Fil­ipino ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters claimed by China in the South China Sea af­ter an in­ter­na­tional tri­bunal ruled that those wa­ters were Fil­ipino. In­stead, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion acted as if in­ter­na­tional law would im­ple­ment it­self. But it never works that way. The rule-based sys­tem Mr Obama en­dorses re­quires a great power to de­fend it.

– Bloomberg Views

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View colum­nist. He was the se­nior na­tional se­cu­rity cor­re­spon­dent for the Daily Beast and cov­ered na­tional se­cu­rity and in­tel­li­gence for

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