Be­hind Manila’s pivot to China

Pakistan Observer - - FRONT PAGE - Mark J Va­len­cia The writer is an ad­junct se­nior scholar at the Na­tional In­sti­tute for South China Sea Stud­ies in Haikou, 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

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