Members of the Philippine-US marine corps stands at attention during the Philippines-US amphibious landing exercise in Manila. Photo: REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco.
Members of the Philippine-US marine corps stands at attention during the Philippines-US amphibious landing exercise in Manila. Photo: REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco.

There has been considerable wailing and gnashing of teeth in the pivoteer quadrant in the aftermath of Duterte’s state visit to Beijing.


When the president of the Philippines, a keystone of the anti-China kinda-containment US alliance, makes statements in China’s Great Hall of the People like this

“In this venue, your honors, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States…Both in military, not maybe social, but economics also. America has lost.”

…it’s not a good day for Uncle Sam.

However, I find it hard to believe that Duterte really loves China this much:

“I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow… There are three of us against the world — China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.”

Perhaps what we are seeing is a swing of the pendulum, away from the United States and toward China, which will at some future date swing back in the opposite direction.

In the high stakes world of Asian diplomacy, new partners are expected to pay a conspicuous price tag to demonstrate the sincerity of their allegiance and reassure their opposite number that they aren’t simply playing off one side against the other for short-term gain.

Myanmar, for instance, put a hold on the PRC-backed Myitsone Dam project to demonstrate to the United States that its desire for rapprochement with the United States was real and sincere.

North Korean leader Kim Jung-un apparently executed his uncle, who was in charge of the China-engagement portfolio, in an unsuccessful attempt to kick off his reign with an opening to the United States.

The Philippines’ price tag was probably the announcement that the current US-Philippine joint military exercise would be “the last one”, as Duterte announced just prior to his Beijing visit.

Duterte’s coolness to security cooperation with the United States is, of course, not merely tactical and opportunistic.  Duterte’s anti-Americanism is founded on a powerful sense of grievance over US crimes against the people of his home province of Mindanao during an insurgency that has persisted in one form or another for over a century, offense at US meddling in his Davao City bailiwick which, Duterte apparently strongly believes, included a campaign of terror-bombing conducted by US covert assets in cahoots with the Manila establishment 15 years ago, and outrage at ongoing borderline-illegal US participation in counterinsurgency operations like the Mamasapano disaster.

Duterte regards the Abu Sayyaf component of his Mindanao insurgency problem as an outgrowth of US meddling and getting the US military/intelligence agencies out of Mindanao was his stated preference even before he became president.  Getting rid of US Ambassador Philip Goldberg—a US diplomat of the proconsul flavor who had been previously ordered to leave Bolivia because its government deemed his engagement with local separatist forces excessive — was another Duterte demand, and Goldberg will be gone in a couple weeks.

Reality a la Duterte will take some getting used to for the United States, particularly for the younger generation of wonks and bureaucrats who have bought into US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s somewhat less than accurate narrative that the US has been a universally adored peace-guaranteeing Asian hegemon during the entire post-war period.  Their pivot-oriented tunnel vision seems to have persuaded them the sole foreign policy goal of the Philippines is to enjoy the intangible psychic benefits of watching sleek US naval vessels knife through the South China Sea, instead of sharing in the wealth thrown off by the Chinese economic behemoth as it lumbers through East Asia.

The New York Times loyally dispensed the Kool Aid in an analysis of the Duterte swerve toward the PRC:

“A radical departure for a country that has historically been the most dependable American ally in Southeast Asia…”

For a smidgen of context, after a (US-abetted) People Power movement deposed (historically corrupt and brutal US-supported dictator and subsequent resident of Hawaii) Ferdinand Marcos in 1991, the nationalist Philippine legislature evicted the United States from its military bases at Clark Field and Subic Bay on the grounds that the Philippines should no longer be a lackey of the United States.

The US military has been struggling to formally return to the Philippines for the last 25 years.  The effort finally culminated in the “Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement” or EDCA, concluded as an executive branch agreement (bypassing any awkward debates in the national legislature) with outgoing Philippine president Beningo Aquino III, coincidentally the pro-American son of martyred political leader (and CIA asset) Beningno Aquino II and Corazon Aquino (who rose to the presidency via People Power and had unsuccessfully tried to keep the US bases in the Philippines after Marcos left).

Moving beyond any inconvenient historical context, the US seems to regard the Philippines as its rightful due, currently and temporarily in the hands of a deluded strongman.

US assumptions concerning the Philippines were summarized in the Washington Post:

The vast majority of Filipinos — and Duterte’s own allies — hold positive views of the United States.

This is a backhanded way of saying that despite Duterte’s undeniable political popularity, Philippine public opinion is much more favorable to the United States than it is to the PRC.  The hope is apparently that Duterte’s popularity will erode as a result of the China entanglement, enabling a campaign against him by pro-American factions and making a pivot toward the PRC untenable.

US pivoteers appear to be visiting the Philippines now in order to evaluate the depth of Duterte’s support, his vulnerabilities, and the enthusiasm for local partners in publicly going after him.

Duterte currently has a dominating position in the legislature, but that does not mean that the China deals could not be held up by embarrassing hearings, or that Duterte’s popularity could be dinged by demands that he affirm the immediate implementation of the South China Sea arbitration ruling, specifically demanding eviction of the PRC from its illegal artificial structure inside the Philippine EEZ: the man-made island constructed on a low-tide elevation at the aptly-named Mischief Reef.

Right now, Duterte urgently needs China to deliver some conspicuous benefits that demonstrate the effectiveness of his administration.  Particularly, attention should be paid to the fact that Duterte needs a lot of drug rehab facilities built on a crash basis — a Chinese specialty — to process hundreds of thousands of surrenderees and keep his drug war from collapsing under its own weight.

Successful execution of the drug war — which also requires genuine and enthusiastic support from the PRC to cut off the Triad-linked supply of shabu (crystal meth)  from the Chinese mainland — is central to Duterte’s political agenda, his ability to shrug off human rights criticisms of his death-squad inflected pursuit of drug pushers, and his popularity.

If Duterte can thread this needle with Chinese help, then he has to deal with his other pressing priority: keeping the US-friendly military establishment onside.

Thanks to 120 years of colonial and quasi-colonial engagement, the US influence is deeply embedded in the Philippine military and Manila elites, as the Washington Post piece states:

The foreign policy and defense establishment has worked with the Americans for years and relies to some extent on US money.

A logical riposte by US strategists would be to recapitulate the PRC’s strategy (strangling economic cooperation during the Aquino administration in order to emphasize the advantages of good relations to the Philippines’ economic decision makers) with a move of its own in the military quadrant (slowing down the traffic in military cooperation and equipment that makes the Philippine military feel important, appreciated, and content.)

The Pentagon may have been counter-productively stingy in holding back the quality gear until it insinuated its way back into the Philippine bases, but in the matter of technology, equipment, officers, and ideology, the Armed Forces of the Philippines is an American show.

Coup talk is already bubbling and attracting the eager attention of foreign observers (and perhaps also the PRC, which is training Philippine police in “VIP security protection”.)

Former President, retired general, power broker, and godfather of the Duterte presidency Fidel Ramos does not appear to be happy.

On her blog, Philippine journalist Ellen Tordesillas reported on statements Ramos made to a periodical on October 9:

The West Pointer asked the questions which are in the minds of Philippine military officials: “ Are we throwing away decades of military partnership, tactical proficiency, compatible weaponry, predictable logistics, and soldier-to-soldier camaraderie just like that?”

Ramos, who was named by Duterte as special envoy to China, will not be joining the President’s state visit to China on Oct. 18 to 21.

His team was supposed to have gone to China last week of September for a second meeting with Chinese officials but it was cancelled. Reason given was the President’s state visit.

Significantly, on October 20, while Duterte was in Beijing announcing the realignment toward China and Russia, Ramos was back in Manila, delivering some remarks at the well-attended send-off banquet for Duterte’s bete noire, US ambassador Philip Goldberg.  Rather ominously for Duterte, Ramos and Goldberg agreed that what the Philippines needed was an “interdependent” as opposed to “independent” foreign policy, i.e. one that did not openly alienate the US and the EU.

One scenario is, of course, that Duterte commits political suicide, fighting a losing battle with the Philippine military, the Pentagon, and the US State Department over his China tilt and Bingo! Pro-American politicians and generals are back in the saddle.

Another scenario is that Duterte persuades Ramos and the military that he needs China now, but he will find or create the justification to pivot away from the PRC and into the hopefully welcoming arms of the Clinton administration when it becomes necessary to assure the support of the Philippine armed forces.

A third scenario, which I find the most likely, is Duterte displays vulnerability by trying to pivot back to the United States, and President Clinton cuts him off at the knees to demonstrate to independently-inclined allies the folly of crossing the US.

In any case, expect the hundred-year US-Philippine military alliance to survive.

Peter Lee

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

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