Philippines Rodrigo Duterte’s ditches the US for China

Philippines Rodrigo Duterte’s ditches the US for China

Beyond all the attention focused on the last weeks of the US presidential campaign, one development in East Asia may have a major impact on the next American president’s efforts to respond to Chinese movements in tandem with at least one of its traditional allies in the region – the Philippines. By J. BROOKS SPECTOR.

In the past week, Rodrigo Duterte, the recently elected president of the Philippines, announced his “separation” from the United States and his embrace of China while on a state visit to the latter nation. Several months earlier he had called President Barack Obama a “son of a whore” after the US leader had openly criticised Duterte’s campaign of extra-legal, extra-judicial killings of suspected drug dealers in the Philippines. Duterte’s comments would – on the face of it – seem to have put paid to that long-running partnership between the Philippines and the US.

The histories of the US and the Philippines first became intertwined over a hundred years ago, back in 1898, when an American naval flotilla under Commodore George Dewey devastated the Spanish Pacific squadron in Manila Bay on 1 May, in the opening action of the Spanish American War. The war itself had begun as both America’s flexing of its nascent imperial wings in an age of Western dominance in Asia and Africa, as well as from widespread sympathy for the long-running rebellion in Cuba against 500 years of Spanish rule. (The actual causus belli had been the explosion and sinking of the US battleship Maine while the ship was on a visit to Cuba – and the popular belief the Spanish had been behind the incident.)

The Philippines had come under Spanish control in the early 16th century as a part of Spain’s vast colonial expansion into Latin America and beyond, and it remained a prized Spanish dominion until that war with America led to its transfer (after the US agreed to pay the bankrupt Spanish government $20 million in compensation). The war’s conclusion effectively ended the Spanish empire as the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam were transferred to the US, and Cuba was allowed to become independent from de facto US control by 1903.

Ethnically and culturally, the Philippines drew from the indigenous Malay-Polynesian world of Indonesia, but the Philippines never coalesced into one national identity, spread out, as they were, over hundreds of islands between Luzon in the north and Mindanao in the south. During the Spanish half-millennium, much of the nation became strongly Catholic, although the southern half of Mindanao became Muslim from the influence of neighbouring Islamic sultanates to the south. Along the way, large numbers of Chinese and Japanese also settled in the islands, and most of the country’s leading families – especially the commercially and politically influential ones – recognise Chinese ancestors among their forebears.

During the American colonial period, before it established a generally benevolent colonial rule that focused on political stability and economic development, the American army had fought against an extended guerrilla war against Emilio Aguinaldo who had declared the islands’ independence from Spain, and himself as the president, even before US troops took the surrender from the Spanish. At the beginning of the US ascendency, a future president, William Howard Taft, was the governor of the islands and Filipinos were referred to as America’s “little brown brothers” in keeping with the racial rhetoric of the times. By the 1930s, the Americans were shaping the islands’ government towards eventual independence, but the Second World War interrupted this movement.

By the time the US had entered the war in December 1941, the American military had established a powerful presence there, including a major naval base at Subic Bay, and at Clark Airfield for the American Army Air Corps. Japan’s unanticipated attack decimated these forces, and, under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, the American and Philippine military eventually retreated to Corregidor Island near the Bataan Peninsula until they surrendered in early 1942. Japanese control of the islands was virtually complete until returning US forces under MacArthur liberated the Philippines. Fierce fighting destroyed much of the historic areas of the capital, Manila. The country was granted independence in 1946 and the political and economic dominance under the families who had been the key influential lineages for generations continued largely unabated.

In the post-World War II period, the Cold War, the defeat of the Nationalist forces in China and the rise of the Communist government there, and the growing American military engagement in Indochina came to occupy much strategic thinking in Washington. Consequently, the vast US military facilities at Subic Bay and Clark Air Base became critically important key points for a forward US strategy. The Philippines became a member of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation, SEATO, one part of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ ring of alliances against Communist expansion that stretched from Japan on through to NATO in Europe. Over the years, large numbers of Filipinos served with the US military, married American personnel, and immigrated to the US as well.

Eventually, the government of the Philippines came to be held by an increasingly dictatorial Ferdinand Marcos (he was initially an extremely popular World War II hero and economic reform advocate) and his shoe-loving spouse and the rest of his avaricious family from 1965 to 1986. With Marcos’ overthrow, a series of democratically elected, but relatively weak presidents governed the country. A few years after the end of the Cold War, at the request of the Philippine government, the US withdrew from its major military bases in the Philippines.

However, in 2012, as a consequence of China’s security strategic entry into the region, and most especially from its base-building and growing assertions of a territorial claim on many of the small islands located throughout the South China Sea bordered by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, the momentum turned towards a more assertive military cooperation between the Philippines and the US. This included access once again to previous bases in the Philippines.

Now, enter Rodrigo Duterte. The Philippines newest president does not come from the nation’s traditional elite. After a decades-long career as a judge and populist mayor of the southern city of Davao, Duterte gained the presidency as a no-nonsense man of the people prepared to clean up the Augean stables of the Philippines’ national drug epidemic – as well as other outrages.

His approach, of course, has also been extraordinarily extra-judicial, with the deaths from this campaign already surpassing 3,000 fatalities. Some were very obviously drug dealers, but many others, apparently, were not. This campaign has led to some strong criticism of Duterte’s new administration, notably from the US, leading to Duterte’s extraordinarily undiplomatic words about Barack Obama and the consequent cancellation by the Americans in response of the Obama-Duterte meeting during the recent ASEAN Leaders Summit.

Concurrently, the Chinese had suffered a public humiliation when an international maritime tribunal ruled Chinese assertions of sovereignty in the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea were unacceptable and violations of international maritime law. These claims had also come forward in defiance of the exclusive economic zone claims of the other smaller nations in the region as well as the continuing assertion by America and others that the seas thereabout were international waters and thus open to untrammelled innocent free passage.

Meanwhile, in the midst of all of this, Duterte went a-calling on the Chinese. This visit was not, apparently, designed to solve the South China Sea imbroglio. Rather, it was to raise investment capital, foreign aid, loans and support for a rather large infrastructure-building plan. Along the way, however, Duterte seems to have gone a bit off script, not unlike a few other politicians these days, and he announced, clearly to the pleasure of his hosts, that he was leading the Philippines to “separate” from the United States. (Filipino public opinion regarding this announcement – at least as might be measured from comments by people on the streets of Manila in newscasts – seemed decidedly less than enthusiastic for this sudden and unexpected move.)

The Economist commented on this abrupt volte-face, saying, “Even in a year of extraordinary reversals, few would have expected it. In July China reacted with fury when an international tribunal upheld a complaint from the Philippines and rubbished China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. This week it is rolling out the red carpet for the mercurial Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte. He is being feted in a four-day state visit, with 400-odd businessmen in tow. Rub your eyes: America’s strongest ally in South-East Asia appears to be plopping like a ripe mango into China’s hands.

“Consider what Mr Duterte, in power since June, has said in recent weeks. He has branded Barack Obama a ‘son of a whore’ for criticising his ‘kill them all’ war on drug dealers and addicts, which has claimed thousands of lives, many of them innocent. He has demanded an end to joint naval patrols and to America’s assistance in the southern jungles of Mindanao, where American Special Forces advise Filipino troops fighting against Abu Sayyaf, a violent group linked to al-Qaeda. And he has questioned whether America would honour its treaty obligation to come to the Philippines’ aid if the archipelago were attacked.

“What that means for the American ‘pivot’ to Asia scarcely bears thinking about. But do the eyes deceive? American officials—from Admiral Harry Harris, commander in the Pacific, down—insist that all is dandy. Joint naval patrols continue, as does co-operation in Mindanao; and America still has five bases on Philippine soil. The close working relationship with Filipino counterparts, the Americans insist, is as strong as ever. The Filipinos, for their part, report no change of orders from the new chief.”

In fact, this whole thing seems to have been about showing the money, like so many other questions. Following Duterte’s visit, Bloomberg reported, “Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will bring home $24 billion worth of funding and investment pledges from his four-day visit to China as both nations agreed to resume talks and explore areas of cooperation in the South China Sea. China will provide $9 billion in soft loans, including a $3 billion credit line with the Bank of China, while economic deals including investments would yield $15 billion, Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez told reporters in Beijing on Friday. Preliminary agreements in railways, ports, energy and mining worth $11.2 billion were signed between Philippine and Chinese firms. ‘China is not only a friend. China is only a relative, but China is a big brother,’ Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said in Beijing, adding that while U.S. had been like a father for the Philippines, it was time to move out of the house and ‘decide for ourselves.’ ”

Even before departing for Beijing, and setting the scene for the love fest that was to follow, Duterte told China’s Xinhua News Agency that China “deserves the kind of respect that [it] now enjoys… It’s only China that can help us.” And as a kind of diplomatic grace note, Duterte added that one of his own grandfathers was Chinese. In response, the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines beamed that such words were like the “clouds fading away” and that the sun was now rising to “shine beautifully on the new chapter of bilateral relations”. Love was in the air.

Besides all that promised cash, the Chinese also hinted they will consider allowing Filipino fishermen to revisit the reefs and waters around the various islets in the South China Sea that used to be their routine fishing preserves for centuries – and most especially the Scarborough Reef, a zone not yet fortified by the Chinese. Or, as the Economist concluded on the matter,  “It is a reckless approach, but not necessarily a lasting one. For the time being, China wishes to draw the Philippines into its camp. That is why it has not yet attempted to build the kind of military facilities on Scarborough Shoal that it has constructed on other reefs in the South China Sea and that many Western analysts had assumed were imminent.

“But China will have to offer more than fishing rights to make any deal acceptable to Filipinos. Even the China-loving Mr Duterte has talked about leaping onto a jet ski to defend the Philippines’ interests in person if need be. So the Chinese idea of a ‘package deal’ in which Chinese sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal is acknowledged in return for fishing rights which Filipinos had anyway long enjoyed will be greeted as an insult back in the Philippines. America, in short, can be patient. The Philippines may yet return to its camp. If so, both sides will claim it never left.”

Going forward, the real question for Americans is how all this will fit into their so-called “pivot towards East Asia” that has been a hallmark of the Obama administration for the past several years. Given the fact that Hillary Clinton is now increasingly likely to succeed Obama in office (and the fact that she was intimately associated with the “pivot” while secretary of state), the question now becomes how her putative administration would react to all this in the years ahead. (Lord alone knows what a President Trump would do with this question, however.)

So far, at least, this pivot has come in part as the manoeuvring for influence between the US and China in the region, rather than from any actual military flash points. For countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, looking forward, the question will be how they evaluate the possibilities of a shift in the equilibrium between the US and China. And for China, of course, the question will be how effective they will judge their efforts to wear down the resolve of the nations of the South China Sea littoral to resist the blandishments (and the pressures) that will emanate from China in the years ahead.

For the next US president, this issue will be a critically important foreign policy challenge that will have repercussions for many other things besides Chinese landing strips on a tiny islet in the South China Sea – from bilateral trade to the efforts to create a broad, inclusive trade zone that will include the nations of the Pacific Rim. And, of course, for the peace of the region. DM

Photo: Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (2-L) and Zhang Dejiang (2-R), Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of China hold a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, 20 October 2016. EPA/WU HONG / POOL


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