Philip­pines’ ‘sepa­ra­tion’ per­plexes U.S. of­fi­cials

Duterte co­zies up to China, Rus­sia

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY GUY TAY­LOR

Re­la­tions be­tween two long­time al­lies hit a new low Thurs­day as Amer­i­can of­fi­cials scram­bled to re­act to Philip­pine Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte’s an­nounce­ment in Bei­jing that he was pur­su­ing a “sepa­ra­tion” from the United States and mov­ing closer to China and Rus­sia, as­sert­ing that Mr. Duterte’s re­marks were “in­ex­pli­ca­bly at odds” with the close al­liance be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Manila.

It was just the lat­est provoca­tive dec­la­ra­tion from the out­spo­ken new Philip­pine leader, at a time when the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has been try­ing to rally coun­tries in the re­gion to stand up to a ma­jor Chi­nese push for con­trol of the South China Sea.

U.S. of­fi­cials ap­peared di­vided on the im­pact of Mr. Duterte’s re­marks, which he made dur­ing a high-pro­file visit to China. One of­fi­cial sug­gested that the move may be pos­i­tive, but an­other said Mr. Duterte’s stance con­tra­dicted his own govern­ment’s ef­forts to build stronger diplo­matic and se­cu­rity ties with Wash­ing­ton. But the con­fu­sion was ev­i­dent.

“We are go­ing to be seek­ing an ex­pla­na­tion of ex­actly what the pres­i­dent meant when he talked about sepa­ra­tion,” said State Depart­ment spokesman John Kirby. “It’s not clear to us ex­actly what that means in all its ram­i­fi­ca­tions.”

The White House tried to down­play the de­vel­op­ment. Spokesman Eric Schultz told re­porters that Filipino of­fi­cials had is­sued no re­quest to al­ter bi­lat­eral co­op­er­a­tion with the U.S. and even sug­gested that the de­vel­op­ment may be pos­i­tive for Amer­i­can in­ter­ests in Asia.

“We don’t con­sider this a ze­ro­sum game. We be­lieve that it’s in our na­tional se­cu­rity in­ter­est when our part­ners and al­lies in the re­gion have strong re­la­tion­ships with China,” he said in re­marks that drew ire from some on Capi­tol Hill.

“Good for­eign pol­icy should be grounded in re­al­ity, but the White House just said that the Philip­pines align­ing with China and dis­miss­ing the United States is in our na­tional se­cu­rity in­ter­ests,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, Ne­braska Repub­li­can. “If that’s the case, I’d like to know how the White House de­fines ‘in­ter­ests’ and ‘al­lies.’”

Mr. Duterte, a long­time pro­vin­cial mayor with a pop­ulist lawand-or­der agenda, has been called the “Filipino Don­ald Trump” be­cause he won the pres­i­dency in May with his pen­chant for po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect re­marks.

Al­though he stopped short of say­ing he would for­mally re­voke a 70-year-old treaty al­liance with Wash­ing­ton, his com­ments in a speech sparked fears that he may well be bent on even­tu­ally re­vok­ing the U.S. mil­i­tary’s ac­cess to five key bases in the Philip­pines.

“In this venue, I an­nounce my sepa­ra­tion from the United States,” Mr. Duterte told an au­di­ence of some 200 Chi­nese and Philip­pine busi­ness peo­ple in the Chi­nese cap­i­tal. “Both in mil­i­tary, not maybe so­cial, but eco­nom­ics also. Amer­ica has lost,” he said to ap­plause.

He made the state­ment a day af­ter a rally out­side the U.S. Em­bassy in Manila turned vi­o­lent when a Philip­pine po­lice van rammed into pro­test­ers, leav­ing sev­eral blood­ied.

The ten­sions have come with re­mark­able swift­ness, Max Boot, a se­nior fel­low at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, said in a blog post Thurs­day for the jour­nal For­eign Pol­icy, and largely re­flect the change ush­ered in by Mr. Duterte’s elec­tion.

“The Philip­pines has seen a ver­tigo-in­duc­ing change in its for­eign pol­icy ori­en­ta­tion since Ro­drigo Duterte be­came pres­i­dent this sum­mer,” Mr. Boot wrote. “This crude pop­ulist is now trans­form­ing the Philip­pines’ re­la­tion­ship with the United States in a fun­da­men­tal and wor­ry­ing man­ner.”

Grow­ing Chi­nese might

Mr. Duterte’s ef­fort to en­gage China re­flects Bei­jing’s grow­ing eco­nomic and mil­i­tary might in the re­gion.

Ear­lier this year, a tri­bunal in The Hague handed Manila a ma­jor vic­tory over Bei­jing in a le­gal dis­pute over sovereignty rights in the South China Sea. The case was brought by Mr. Duterte’s pre­de­ces­sor.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has been scram­bling to get a clear read on Mr. Duterte’s pos­tur­ing since the 71-year-old mav­er­ick and pre­vi­ous long­time pro­vin­cial mayor took of­fice on June 30.

He made global head­lines in Septem­ber by re­fer­ring to Pres­i­dent Obama as a “son of a whore” for crit­i­ciz­ing his harsh anti-drug cam­paign and sub­se­quently an­nounced that he may end Philip­pine navy par­tic­i­pa­tion in joint pa­trols with U.S. forces in the South China Sea.

Mr. Obama can­celed a planned bi­lat­eral meet­ing at a re­gional sum­mit in Laos in re­sponse to Mr. Duterte’s out­burst.

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