Behind Manila’s pivot to China
PHILIPPINES President Rodrigo Duterte has declared a pivot in Philippines foreign policy that will “separate” it from the United States and bring it closer to China and Russia. The reaction from US policymakers and pundits has ranged from shock to disbelief, denial, resentment and grudging acceptance. The common hope seems to be that this is just a phase that will pass — either the shift in policy or Duterte himself.
Duterte has indicated that he will re-evaluate and perhaps rescind the 2014 US-Philippines Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that allows the US to rotate troops and assets through bases in the Philippines. In response, Pentagon spokesperson Gary Ross said that the EDCA is an international agreement and that both the US and the Philippines are bound by it. White House spokesman Josh Earnest described Duterte’s comments as “personal,” “offensive” and “confusing.” US Ambassador Philip Goldberg said “some of the language we’ve heard is inconsistent with that friendship.” Unwittingly manifesting the roots of US resentment, he went on to claim that “we’ve always treated the Philippines as a co-equal. It’s a sovereign country and you make decisions on where, what you believe is in the interest of the Philippines.” Many Filipino elites would view this as paternalistic nonsense.
As Dennis Blair, the former head of US Pacific Command, grudgingly acknowledged, the Philippine resentment of the US stems from “a combination of the US having had big bases there, of supporting Marcos for too long, and providing economic support through (the) demeaning channels. …” Indeed this deep well of resentment has built up over decades of the US taking for granted and advantage of natural Filipino warmth and tolerance.
Let’s look at the situation from a Philippines’ realist perspective. It is unsure if America will back it up in a conflict with China and realises that it will have to live with and get along with China in perpetuity. Moreover, its leadership is genuinely tired of being condescended to and lectured to by the US, particularly on domestic policy. In such circumstances it is understandable that the Philippines wants to promote a more independent foreign policy, rebalance its military relationships and ban foreign troops from its soil.
After all, Duterte may have some method in his US-perceived “madness.” He may be trying to get an unequivocal commitment of US military backup in the event of a China attack on Philippine forces. Or he may be trying to negotiate a modus vivendi with the most powerful Asian nation. Facilitating implementation of US military strategy against China may not be viewed as particularly helpful in this endeavour. Or maybe he really is about making the Philippines’ foreign policy more “independent.” Whatever his reasons, he is — as he puts it — the democratically elected “president of a sovereign state and we have long ceased to be a colony.” Moreover, he is still hugely popular at home.
US policymakers and analysts may not like his style nor his alleged extra-judicial methods in dealing with domestic problems. But the US has dealt with — even supported — far worse characters, like one of his predecessors. And it still does — in the region and beyond. More generally the US also needs to reassess its policy in and approach to Asia rather than simply doubling down and imposing its preferences.
According to analyst Carlyle Thayer, there may even be an upside to these developments. “Duterte’s current pivot to China will likely depress Chinese assertiveness and further militarisation of the Spratly Islands. This could lead to a relatively stable status quo.” This is what the US claims to want. However, for Vietnam and other members of ASEAN, the actions by Duterte will result in increased Chinese leverage and decreased US status and influence. It would seem that ASEAN states are buying into China’s rhetoric that the four claimants must negotiate directly with China. If so, this may be another step toward a Chinese-driven strategic realignment in Southeast Asia. — Courtesy: The Japan Times