Commentary / World

Behind Manila's pivot to China

by Mark J. Valencia

Special To The Japan Times

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 U.S. 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 reevaluate and perhaps rescind the 2014 U.S.-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that allows the U.S. 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 U.S. and the Philippines are bound by it. White House spokesman Josh Earnest described Duterte’s comments as “personal,” “offensive” and “confusing.”

U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg said “some of the language we’ve heard is inconsistent with that friendship.” Unwittingly manifesting the roots of U.S. 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.

Senior U.S. foreign policy officials sang a similar tune. At a recent defense writers breakfast, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Daniel Russel said that “there’s lots of noise, a lot of stray voltage coming from Manila. We’ve been through a lot worse in our 70-year history.” As Russel put it: “There’s a difference between talking about these things and doing them.” He added that the benefits the Philippines gets from U.S. assistance and protection under the 1951 mutual defense treaty and the strong public support in that country for America “make it improbable any Philippine leader would distance himself from the United States.”

However he soon changed his tune. In Manila on Oct. 24, after meeting with Philippine Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay to clarify Duterte’s comments, he sounded less confident that the relationship would remain stable. He said he “pointed out to Secretary Yasay that the succession of controversial comments and a real climate of uncertainty about the Philippines intention has created consternation in many countries, not only in mine.” He also angered Philippines leadership by saying he lectured Yasay “about the high loss of life in connection with the counternarcotics campaign.” Upon being briefed by Yasay on the conversation, Duterte said in Tagalog “You tell them, you sons of b——-s, don’t treat us like a dog. Don’t put us on a leash then throw scraps that we can’t reach. Do not … with our dignity.”

Digging himself in deeper, Russel also said that the U.S. supports negotiations between the Philippines and China “as long as they are consistent with international law.” This could be interpreted as a condescending warning to the Philippines not to abandon the arbitration decision in its favor. Darkening the political cloud, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter added from a flight to Turkey that”obviously any relationship is one of mutuality and we will continue to discuss that with our Philippine counterpart.”

Not only do some of these policymakers, spokespersons and pundits apparently just not “get it” — that is, the underlying cause and depth of Duterte’s angst — but they share a willful self-delusion or ignorance regarding the prevalent view of the U.S. by a significant portion of Filipino elites. Indeed they have by and large failed to recognize the roots of the problem — American cultural and diplomatic hubris and heavy handedness.

First of all, the legacy of U.S. colonialism is still very much alive in the Philippines. It manifests itself in the constitutional recognition of English as an official language and in the education system, as well as in the U.S. diplomatic approach and U.S. military and “tourist” treatment of Filipinos and especially Filipinas. As Dennis Blair, the former head of U.S. Pacific Command, grudgingly acknowledged, the Philippine resentment of the U.S. stems from “a combination of the U.S. 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 U.S. taking for granted and advantage of natural Filipino warmth and tolerance.

But the worm may be turning. After one of Duterte’s outbursts, Yasay eloquently explained that “the United States held on to invisible chains that reined us in toward dependence and submission as little brown brothers not capable of true independence and freedom.” This is a major indictment coming from the foreign minister.

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 realizes 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 U.S., 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 U.S.-perceived “madness.” He may be trying to get an unequivocal commitment of U.S. 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 U.S. military strategy against China may not be viewed as particularly helpful in this endeavor. 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.

U.S. policymakers and analysts may not like his style nor his alleged extrajudicial methods in dealing with domestic problems. But the U.S. has dealt with — even supported — far worse characters, like one of his predecessors. And it still does — in the region and beyond.

The U.S. needs to “get over it” and face and deal with reality — not what it would like the situation to be. Blair suggests that “we should tread carefully,” not encourage or be seen to favor (a coup). We should avoid grand gestures — severing military ties on our end, taking punitive economic action.”

More generally the U.S. 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 militarization of the Spratly Islands. This could lead to a relatively stable status quo.”

This is what the U.S. claims to want. However, for Vietnam and other members of ASEAN, the actions by Duterte will result in increased Chinese leverage and decreased U.S. 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.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, China.

Coronavirus banner