by Yiming Yu, third year Chinese student of BA International Relations at the War Studies Department of King’s College London.
The United States’ renewed ambition in Asia seems to have hit a speed bump due to Philippine’s Trump: Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, weeks before facing the potential misfortune of being misled by the real Donald Trump,
Duterte’s term has been marked by a sharp downturn in US-Philippines relations: from warning the US not to intervene into his brutal drug war and calling US President Barack Obama ‘son of a bitch’ to announcing halt of presence of US forces in southern Philippines as well as joint maritime patrol, there seems. Perhaps what is more worrying for the US is that, at the same time, while threatening to cut ties with the US, Duterte expressed a willingness to improve the Philippines relationship with China and Russia, the former of which is believed to be the biggest reason why the US strives to increase its presence in Asia.
Promoted by Hilary Clinton’s America’s Pacific Century in Foreign Policy, “Pivot to Asia” has been one of the most significant foreign policy strategies in Barack Obama’s term. Although in the article Clinton claims US strives to build new partnerships with China, this strategy is widely taken as an effort to contain China instead. The foremost part of this strategy, as Clinton argues, is updating bilateral security alliances in the region, including the one with the Philippines. In fact, while US also is making efforts in building relationships with other South China Sea states such as Indonesia, India and Vietnam, it can be said the Philippines is the US’ most important ally in Southeast Asia.
Among all other South China Sea claimants, Vietnam and the Philippines hold most hard-line attitudes on the issue, and only the Philippines has a mutual-defence treaty with the US. There is consistent cooperation in the security realm through capacity-building programs and engagements. In the past, as an article in National Interest suggests, the US ally starting a conflict with China which would drag the US into war is a worrying prospect. However, while the US definitely does not want to see tensions between China and the Philippines, now it seems the Philippines could walk towards the opposite direction. The thaw might mean China can keep progressing to construct artificial islands at its will, thus having de facto military control of South China Sea one day.
It is hard to know Duterte’s true intention behind his controversial remarks, which is complicated by his personal background and contradictory public comments. Self-labelled as a socialist, Duterte has specific concerns over the US behaviour in its colonial ruling of the Philippines. Before being elected as the President, Duterte was the mayor of Davao, a city situated in Mindanao Island, which hosts US military force. This may have prompted him to include an anti-imperialism and nationalist sentiment in his speeches in the wake of western criticism on human rights violation in his war on drugs. After the Permanent Court Arbitration (PCA) ruling was announced, Duterte’s statement expressed willingness to engage in bilateral talks with China. As a scholar suggests, Duterte hopes to create a favourable atmosphere in the build-up of negotiations with China by alienating the US. However, conversely, in the recent speeches denouncing America, Duterte, as well as his Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay, both claim that the US has failed the Philippines. Their criticism explicitly state their anger over failure of the US to provide adequate support for the Philippines to counter China’s encroachment. Such ambiguous words show Duterte, indeed like his predecessors and as logically expected, are trying to find balance between China and the US. Yet, his character and reckless ruling style may make his foreign policy unpredictable and potentially inconsistent. However, one thing is for sure – the Philippines will strive to grab more independence from the US influence in their domestic policy, preventing interference in the anti-drug war and being controlled as puppet in US-China competition.
The overnight tension in the US-Philippines relationship obviously presents unexpected opportunity for China. With China consistently insisting on solving territorial disputes through bilateral talks, Philippine’s willingness to participate in talks, even on the basis of PCA ruling, clearly falls into China’s favour. While it cannot be expected for the Philippines to compromise its position or even ally with China, an uncontrollable and China-favouring ally in the US-Asia strategy will always be satisfying news to China, who has always claimed the US was behind the Philippines’ lawsuit case against China. In the short term, China has slowed down its reclamation work on the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island) as a move to satisfy the Philippines. However, in the long term, as Canrong Jin, a prominent current affairs commentator publicly states, China will and is determined to finish construction in the region. We can expect the Philippines and China to hold talks before construction fully re-start but it is fair to wonder, with China’s consistent denial of PCA ruling, whether the Philippines has enough leverage to persuade China to make any compromises.
For the US, it has to consider what the next step is. In fact, the US may fall into the same dilemma as China deals with North Korea (DPRK). In both cases, the Philippines and DPRK respectively hold important geopolitical positions in the US’ and China’s strategy. However, both struggle for greater independence in own foreign policy and try to get rid of their ‘big brothers’ influence. Consequentially, in the pursuit of own strategic goals, both act relentlessly, damaging their allies’ interests. Facing DPRK’s ‘naughty boy’ behaviour, China takes a relatively tolerant stance and for now, from reassurance of US officials such as Defence Secretary Ash Carter, it seems the US will take similar approach to the Philippines. Maybe the US will consider whether to keep silence over human rights abuse in Duterte’s war on drugs or fulfil Duterte’s any requests to appease him. Another option for the US is to promote partnerships with other states in the region, at least during Duterte’s presidency, to form new alliances. For example, in early October, a US warship made a landmark visit to Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, the first visit since the end of Vietnam War. This might be a sign for the strengthening of the US-Vietnam relationship. However, developing new allies in the region will inevitably spark a reaction from China .
The reason why Duterte’s policies that hint towards independence create such a huge stir is that such signs seem to indicate a significant departure from his predecessor’s close ties with the US. Indeed, with an overwhelmingly positive view of the US amongst the Filipino population and dependence on the US in the security sphere, Duterte may turn back to the US if his talks with China cannot proceed as desired. However, while other Filipino officials assure US-Philippines ties are still solid, the latest news is that the Philippines Defence Secretary officially will announce the end of joint patrol in South China Sea as ordered by Duterte, which means Duterte’s words are no longer rhetoric but reality. For now, a time when the “Pivot to Asia” is seen by some as a failure, Duterte’s more independent yet unpredictable policy will only further hinder the US strategy and enable China to gain more control in the region.