Amid the growing heat between China and its neighbours, the U.S. particularly wants to pursue greater influence in Asia to stem China’s ambitions. Philippines’ reshuffle is the end of the American ‘first island strategy’ and realignment with China and Russia meant the U.S. stands to lose its entire ‘Pacific Century” as its influence in the South China Sea is known.
The United States quest to block China’s growth as an economic superpower since long by striking up close friendship with its neighbouring countries, it was quietly successful in frustrating China’s ambitions and establishing its hegemony in South East Asia. Philippines has played a major role in this geopolitical strategy for more than a century, recently its foreign policy underwent a sharp reversal after Rodrigo Duterte became President. He made efforts to improve ties with China and made friendly overtures after seven decades of hostility.
Duterte wishes to resolve the long pending South China Sea dispute through dialogue, even though a tribunal at the Hague recently made a ruling that China did not have historic rights to the South China Sea. He has chosen to announce a “separation” from long-term ally United States. While on a visit to Beijing in October 2016, he said ,”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.”
The Philippines PM was on a business trip with an entourage of 200 businessmen to forge a business alliance with China, deals worth $13.5 billion were discussed. He received a warm welcome in Beijing, he also announced his intentions to work on better relations with Russia, another Cold War rival of the U.S. “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to President Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world – China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way,”.
These developments have displeased the United States which counted on the Philippines to help contain China via the South China Sea dispute, there is $5 trillion worth of Chinese trade plying that route. An arrangement was in place whereby the U.S. forces had rotational access to bases in the Philippines and the U.S. State Department demanded an explanation regarding the new developments.
The U.S. -Philippines relations seem to have struck a sour note while relations with China entered a new “springtime”, in Duterte ’s own words. In practical terms however, it is not a real estrangement as Philippines government policy-makers conveyed that good relations would be maintained with the U.S. as well as neighbouring China. The Philippine Trade Minister is on record having said that his country would not stop trade and investment with the US while the U.S. maintains that it would like its ally to have amiable relations with China due to U.S. national security interests so it would just be a cold parting of the ways.
The Philippines government wants to strike a balance between the U.S. and China, focusing on its national interests, Duterte is very popular and is perceived as a doer by his people, at home he has declared a war on drug trade and brutal measures have been taken to control crimes. Duterte felt that the Americans were interfering in his efforts to break the drug cartels so he said he wanted every American soldier to pack up and leave, still he allowed naval exercises between both countries to continue as long as these were not close to the South China Sea.
The West has been slamming him on human rights issues but Filipinos love him as he has provided them a safer, crime free environment, Western mainstream media often criticizes him for getting drug dealers killed brutally. Duterte earned trust ratings of 86% in October from Asia Pulse consequently. Filipinos are more used to dealing with the Americans and getting used to the Chinese will take a while, after all it has been over a century of U.S. dominance for them as the Americans occupied the Philippines in 1898. Any re-alignment would have been an uphill task if not for Duterte ’s immense popularity.
Duterte seemed to have had unpleasant experiences in his dealings with the United States, it is obvious from his words, “I will not go to America anymore. We will just be insulted there, so time to say goodbye my friend.” There seems to have been a lot of bad blood between him and Barack Obama as he is on record for having called the former a “son of a bitch” and told him to “go to hell.” Things are definitely not the same and the U.S. is seeking to replace Philippine with Vietnam as a regional security partner to offset the recalcitrant withdrawal of the Philippines from its geopolitical games.
A US-led bloc of Asian nations is its necessity to continue counter-balancing China’s rise, Philippines is strategically located between the South China Sea and the western Pacific Ocean, it has helped contain both Russia and China. Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations says, “if the Philippines becomes a Chinese satrapy Washington will find itself hard-pressed to hold the ‘first island chain’ in the Western Pacific that encompasses the Japanese archipelago, the Ryukyus, Taiwan and the Philippine archipelago.”
The exit of Philippines is the end of the American ‘first island strategy’ and Duterte wishes to have better ties with Russia as well as China, the U.S. stands to lose its entire ‘Pacific Century” as its influence in the South China Sea is known. If China’s aims get further consolidated in the region, it could also exert a firmer grip on ASEAN countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam which have opposed it in the past.
Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. Presidential elections might prove to be a silver lining where the Philippine friction is concerned. Duterte was delighted to hear the news and said “I would like to congratulate President Trump, Long live, Mr. Trump! We both curse at the slightest of reasons. We are alike, even with trivial matters we curse. I was supposed to stop because Trump is there. I don’t want to quarrel anymore, because Trump has won.”
Evidently, a personality clash with outgoing Obama may have triggered this Philippine changing of tracks. Only time will tell how successful Duterte will be in changing direction from the United States which still is the Philippines’s strongest economic partner. All these recent happenings raise questions as to why the United States looks like it is losing many old allies, is it losing its clout as a superpower? The United States seems to be unable to keep its allies happy on a long-term basis, it might be due to a lack of sincerity and a tendency to exploit weaker states.