Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters, Thomas Peter
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters, Thomas Peter

The United States—diplomats, military, think tanks, and media—are infatuated with the idea that Philippine foreign policy is a zero sum game: China vs. America.  And China shouldn’t be allowed to win.

When Philippine fishermen were finally able to fish the outside of the Scarborough Shoal (not the area inside the atoll but in conformity with the UNCLOS arbitration settlement), I sensed some sour grapes from the pivoteer commentariat at the Philippines yielding so abjectly to the PRC’s concession.

I have been unable to acquire firm figures on the potential value of the catch from the Scarborough Shoal, but I suspect it accounts for less than 1% of the Philippines’ total catch, perhaps $20 million dollars.

And I suspect that Duterte—who hails from the fishing-friendly south of the Philippines, which accounts for about 50 times as much—is happy his foreign policy is not being held hostage to the shoal.

The tunnel vision that marks US efforts to turn “Philippines can’t have an independent foreign policy” from wishful thinking into self-fulfilling prophecy was marked in recent days by the high profile announcement that the US State Department would hold up the sale of 26,000 assault rifles to the Philippines in response to a congressman’s concerns over Philippine human rights violations.

Never mind that the rifles were destined for the Special Armed Forces of the Philippine National Police for its security and counterinsurgency efforts, including the Abu Sayyaf terrorists on Mindanao whose presence elicits the tender concern and protective interest of the United States.

President Duterte promptly made it known that other countries—like Russia—would be happy to make up the shortfall.

Another interesting development in the Philippine security saga was an article by John McBeth, a venerable and well-connected Asia hand, in the SCMP weekly magazine with the title Why Duterte’s US Split Could Help Islamic State Rise in the Philippines.  (The URL indicates the original title envisioned for the piece was along the more dire regional-crisis lines of “Duterte’s US split threatens to weaken Southeast Asia’s struggle against ISIS.”)

McBeth interviewed Sydney Jones of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta and the tenor of his report—Watch out for ISIS in Mindanao!—could, to people familiar with allegations of Philippine army and even US collusion with useful militant assets in Mindanao  , be easily construed as “Watch out for false flags in Mindanao!”:

Jones said the support for ISIS in Mindanao has not only led to a repackaging of old kidnapping-for-ransom groups, but has also facilitated cooperation across clan and ethnic lines, widened recruitment to include tech-savvy university students and opened new international communication and possibly funding channels.

“It means that more deadly violence in the Philippines involving alliances of pro-ISIS groups is a matter of when, not if,” she said. “It may also increase the possibility of cross-border extremist operations.”

The takeaway:

Without US encouragement and support in intelligence and training, sources familiar with the situation say the Philippines will have a difficult time tackling the sort of scenario Jones describes.

The idea that Duterte might get more than he can handle, weaken his regional standing by turning Mindanao into a terrorist nexus with transnational impact—and anger and alienate his own military—by spurning the US in Mindanao security operations is such an alluring idea one has to wonder if somebody with pro-US inclinations might actually try to act on it.

It is not inconceivable that the reason Duterte so emphatically wants the US out of Mindanao (and Ambassador Goldberg, experienced in the ways of secessionist groups, out of Manila) is his desire to pre-empt the possibility of such shenanigans.

The US commentariat was also much beguiled by the news that a key ally of Duterte’s, Fidel Ramos, has differences with Duterte, indeed had excoriated Duterte in a number of newspaper columns, and this weekend blindsided the administration by resigning from his high-profile post as special envoy to China.

Ramos, in addition to being a very well-respected ex-President, had also been Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Secretary of National Defense.  So the leap was understandably made to “some believe Ramos’s displeasure with Duterte could represent similar displeasure from the military,” as Quartz chose to report it, albeit only by quoting Western sources.

However, a look at Ramos’ broadsides is revealing.

Interestingly and worryingly for the United States (and perhaps bewilderingly for Western journalists locked into the China First! narrative of Philippine affairs), beating back the PRC threat in the South China Sea didn’t even make it onto Ramos list of seven priorities for Duterte’s administration.

It’s instructive to present Ramos’ punch list in full for Western readers:

  • Alleviation of mass poverty by providing wider openings for poor people to earn from new livelihood opportunities and/or find better-paying jobs at home.
  • Relief from the escalating costs of living, in particular, food, fuel, transportation, education and housing.
  • Improvement of people’s quality of life, better governance and a happier outlook for the future which is being experienced by our Southeast Asian neighbors – for example, in the new Myanmar.
  • Enhancement of public safety and national security in terms of the reduction of threats and risks arising out of the common, universal dangers of climate change, pandemic diseases, hunger and international terrorism, among others.
  • Resumption of the Mindanao Peace Process particularly with the maintenance of an effective ceasefire, collection of a greater number of loose firearms, and removal of socio-economic-political barriers to a final peace agreement.
  • Beginning of Charter change and legislative reforms represented by the FOI bill, climate change adaptations and reduction of taxes, among others.
  • Upliftment of the morale of people and prospects for a higher position of respect and dignity within the community of nations (In 2015, the Philippines ranked in the bottom half at 115th, lower than Samoa, out of 195 countries in the UN Human Development Index).

And when Ramos talks about key foreign policy challenge for the Philippines, it’s not the South China Sea, it’s…climate change!

In addition to a passionate engagement with social and economic improvement of the Philippines, Ramos is concerned about what can be done about the new generation of mega typhoons—fueled, one can reasonably speculate, by heightened water temperatures produced by global warming—that periodically devastate the Philippines.

How to solve it?  Per the title of another Ramos missive: Enhancing the UN-China-US collaboration

It’s a global problem and Ramos wants Duterte to think globally, obtain technological and financial aid from the biggest actors in the climate change mitigation process—the US, China, and the UN—and not become a diplomatic irritant and source of division instead.

And so, when Duterte found it necessary to mend fences with Ramos over the weekend, he chose the subject of…climate change!

Duterte has to worry about Ramos, and the military, but I don’t think he has to worry yet…or the US can currently bank on…a Ramos-led coup to realign Philippine foreign policy back to a pro-US tilt.

Clearly, at the same time the Western press is engaged in a drumbeat of “Duterte is selling out the Philippines’ security to China” there’s a counter-narrative of “Duterte pursues an independent foreign policy.”

That development was very much on display during Duterte’s visit to Japan.

Duterte reiterated his harsh views about military cooperation with the United States, adding the detail he wanted the US military “out” within two years, but declared he went to China to talk economics, not defense.

For a dependable regional ally, he turned to Japan.

Duterte characterized Japan as “special friend who’s closer than a brother” and his visit as “defining moment in solid, strategic partnership between the two countries.”

Duterte did not get a visit with the Emperor.  The ostensible reason was the death of the Emperor’s 100-year old uncle, but it would not be too surprising if the Emperor looked at Duterte’s death squad/Obama-insulting bag of tricks and said no thanks.

But otherwise, things went rather well.

Duterte got a US$157 million loan to cover purchase of two more coast guard vessels, a promise of TC-90 maritime surveillance trainers, and “Tokyo will also provide high-speed small vessels and other equipment to boost Manila’s counter-terrorism operations, especially in the porous borders in the south”.

What Duterte did not receive was a middle finger from Prime Minister Abe, which would have been a suitable demonstration of the need for united-front pivot solidarity that confronts China in the Pacific under US leadership, and a repudiation of the Philippine rank-breaking that allows the PRC to slice and dice and divide and conquer the opposition.

Instead, Abe cheerfully joined Duterte in “The Punisher’s” favorite photo op, thrusting a clenched fist toward the camera in an exercise of strongman brio.

Japan is playing an interesting game here, similar to Duterte’s, in my opinion.

On the one hand, Abe displays full fealty to the pivot and we can assume that his government and the US arrived at an agreement not to continue the flame war with Duterte in Tokyo.

But secondly Abe is, awkwardly for the United States, a revisionist nationalist who is exploiting the pivot to rebuild Japanese regional clout.

Against the possibility that the US attempt to assert leadership of a China-containment coalition collapses under the weight of its ambitions before the PRC collapses in response to Western pressure, Japan hedges its bets—and advances a revisionist agenda—by cultivating its direct bilateral ties with Asian states that otherwise might swing into the PRC camp if the US “unpivots” from Asia.

Abe’s calculations look rather sagacious now that Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Vietnam as well as the Philippines have all found it desirable to engage bilaterally with the PRC instead of maintaining in pivot lockstep.

And Japan is engaging with all of them.

Duterte’s foreign policy initiatives support a narrative that Asian tensions are reduced—and a more robust regional security architecture enhanced—by the US stepping away from Asia, and not the other way around.

That’s a challenge that Hillary Clinton, the proud parent of the pivot to Asia, will have to confront if, as expected, she takes office in 2017.

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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