HUNTINGTON BEACH, CALIFORNIA – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent calls for a “separation” from the United States and for U.S. troops to exit the Philippines within two years provide a series of wake up calls for Washington. As the American people prepare to choose their next commander-in-chief, a rethink of America’s decades-old assumptions about Manila and the broader region are in order. Here’s why.
Some Asian states have begun an inevitable balancing act between Washington and Beijing. China’s rise and its increasingly aggressive behavior of asserting sovereignty over the South China Sea and unilateral imposition of its East China Sea air defense identification zone in recent years have demonstrated a determination to assert itself as the regional hegemon. Many in the area have taken notice and simply making their best of this geopolitical contest.
Duterte’s comments over the past month are part and parcel of this trend as, it can be argued, were Thailand’s and Malaysia’s decisions to choose Beijing over Washington with their purchases of submarines and littoral mission ships last year and last week, respectively. Other states, such as India, Vietnam and Japan, have taken a different approach by strengthening their capabilities and solidifying their geopolitical relationships with Washington.
Washington has failed to grasp the concerns of Asia’s various states. The two most prescient examples of this were Thailand and the Philippines. The U.S. handled the May 2014 coup in Bangkok clumsily, resorting to publicly criticizing Thailand’s new prime minister (Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha) and his government, pointing out their human rights failings, imposing sanctions and scaling back joint military programs. This resulted in Bangkok, Washington’s oldest treaty ally in Asia, pivoting toward Beijing with a deepening of military, commercial and diplomatic relations.
In May, Duterte was elected president with campaign promises to combat the illegal drug trade, a commitment he honored by initiating the Philippine Drug War and supporting the extrajudicial killings of thousands suspected of being involved in the drug trade.
The U.S. reacted with pointed criticism of Duterte’s actions. What followed were statements by Duterte that have made headlines worldwide in recent weeks, calling Obama a “son of a b—-h,” telling the U.S. president to “go to hell,” the “separation” proclamation and the call for U.S. troops to leave the Philippines within two years.
Washington’s mishandling of the transitions in Bangkok and Manila demonstrates a lack of understanding of the interests — strategic and others — of Asia’s various states. To prevent a further setback in relations, Washington will need to devote more effort toward learning what keeps its Asian counterparts up at night — their fears, their concerns, their aspirations. This will require sustained U.S. diplomatic outreach and a greater emphasis on carefully listening to the states involved.
Asian states have their doubts as to Washington’s commitment to the region over the long term. U.S. public opinion is fickle. It demanded the cessation of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula, a withdrawal from Vietnam and is now weary from more than 15 years of fighting in the war on terror. It is understandable that Asian states are skeptical of the U.S.’ commitment to the region given what has transpired over the past six decades. Washington can make headway on this through more frequent military visits to the region and assurances that the U.S.’ seemingly endless commitments in the Mideast will not distract from its responsibilities in the Pacific.
Washington has been too open with its public criticism of allies and partners in the region. The setback in relations with Bangkok and Manila have shown that America’s legitimate concerns over human rights and dissent ought to be conveyed respectfully in closed-door meetings with its partners.
America has unnecessarily ceded economic aid in Asia to China. Asia’s rise over the past 30 years has brought impressive growth yet there are still areas lacking in development, i.e., Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia. The U.S. has the means and know-how to contribute effectively and there is simply no reason for the U.S. to cede to China the roles of investment and economic aid.
Washington’s failure of imagination has set back ties with two treaty allies, Bangkok and Manila. What could cause others to move to China’s fold in the future? Part of any policymaker’s job is to consider the unimaginable in order to prepare for crises and the unexpected. What would cause Seoul or New Delhi to throw in with Beijing? For good measure, what would need to happen for Tokyo and Singapore to do the same? Canberra? A lack of imagination and a failure to think outside of the box by American policymakers may lead to future blunders with consequences far heavier than recent missteps.
Alliances, like many relationships, sometimes require holding one’s nose. For geopolitical and strategic reasons, the U.S. has worked with foreign leaders with whom it had tensions and in some cases did not share values. Park Chung-hee of South Korea, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and the House of Saud come to mind, among others. It will need to do the same with the likes of Duterte, Prayuth Chan-ocha and Tran Dai Quang of Vietnam if it is to push back against Beijing-directed realignment in the region.
The next U.S. president will need to commit to a decades-long “surge” of new strategic thinking, diplomacy as well as military and commercial presence in the Asia-Pacific if it is to maintain its stabilizing influence in the region. Efforts short of this will likely change the region’s order from what we have known in the postwar era.
Ted Gover teaches political science at Central Texas College, U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton , California .