Barack Obama at the twilight of his presidency had to undergo a few diplomatic skirmishes. The Brazilian President cancelling bi lateral talks over NSA and wiretapping, the red carpet protocol denial of the Chinese for G-20 summit and the biggest of them all, an infuriating insult by the newly elected Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte.
Whilst other dissolved as whimper of a diplomatic ambushes, the last one had profound implications as a policy shift. Choices of words by Rodrigo Duterte even though crass were historic as it implied a tectonic shift in Philippines foreign policy that is now tending to drift from being a colonial appendage of the United states and later a key strategic partner in the Pacific. Every two days you hear Mr Duterte ranting anti Americanism and so far has signalled increased hostility although members of his own cabinet has assured it’s not a complete breakdown.
Minimally it would suggest Manila breaking from the shackles of a Washington dependence and sway over its foreign policy.
Cooperation between the two seems to have gone awry after decades of continuing honeymoon which replicates much love now hate US-Iran relations of the Middle East.
And the centerpiece of this re balancing act is the newly elected left leaning President Duterte who is making a two prong wave of blatant war of words against Washington and an ongoing extra judicial war on drugs domestically.
Rodrigo Duterte won a landslide with 6.6 million votes more than his closest rival.
As a mayor of Davao city, his links with vigilante groups that embarked on extra judicial killings of drug peddlers made him sort of popular notwithstanding scrutiny by human rights associations like Amnesty international. Pulse Asia released a poll showing him enjoying trust of 91% Filipinos making him the most trusted official in the country since the surveys began.
His election now is compounded with the South China Sea dispute (over islands, corals, energy resources and it being one of the busiest sea ways) which involves many Asian countries having strategic interests with America trying to seek leverage in the region via Manila and the Chinese vying to seek its hegemony with as a strategist dubbing it as a ‘creeping assertiveness’ on the part of Beijing.
Beijing accuses Washington of militarizing the region. And at the centre of it lies the entire partnership between US-Philippines with Washington having a strong fore bearing and stamp on every major institution in Manila. With 92% favourably viewing the States, it is undoubtedly the most pro American country in the world. The annual Balikatan military exercises done to weed extremist organizations like Abu Sayyaf, their joint military and training education program being the largest in the Pacific and the Scarborough Shoal standoff with ongoing Spartly island dispute has enabled in total a robust military ties between the two countries. War games and military exercises have furthered their relations and were seen as a posturing to counter balance rising Peoples Republic of China’s ambition.
So when newly elected Filipino head met with his counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing, the bonhomie set the tongues wagging. Chinese Filipino relations were traditionally at loggerheads owing to Manila knocking doors of international courts over South China Sea where Beijing had allegedly impinged building artificial islands over the disputed territorial region. Chinese based its claim on the so called nine dash line stretching deep into the maritime waters encompassing hundreds of islands, reefs and gas deposits. The Hague based court ruled Chinese had no claims to it and it plummeted bilateral relations to a new low. The quest for geopolitics over the South China Sea has always locked the two countries into an ensuing regional rivalry. The change of guard in June 2016 was very much anticipated by Beijing as a hope for normalization in relations.
Presidential polls and the subsequent war of words has certainly given it a much needed relief as American interests in this region were anchored via its former colony.
As Duterte was given a grand rousing red carpet treatment, thirteen bi lateral agreements were signed in due process of new found cooperation. However, Gloria Arroyo, the erstwhile Filipino premier had signed more treaties but didn’t generate so much hype and press. Most of the agreements are MOUs but his apparent allegiance to the Chinese has fetched 9 billion in credit and 6 billion in soft loans.
Promises of Chinese companies investing including plans to establish 700 million steel plant is too in the offing. Although much can bloom about trade and economic cooperation, the major focus of the world was on remarks made by the 71 year old leader Duterte calling for a break up with the US.
The call was also for a growing sphere of regional axis of a cooperation with Duterte hinting a Russia, Chinese group-ism of sorts in the Pacific. Later he clarified saying his statements were not a severance of ties but a separation of foreign policy adhering to much deep rooted influence of America in Filipino scheme of things. Along with strong military ties, an 18 billion dollars trade between them is too much to completely break ties including 17.6 billion dollars sent home by Filipinos working in the US. In real sense of the term the shift in actuality doesn’t really sum up to economic sphere as it has to lose much than gain from a Washington separation.
During election campaigning, a resurgent Duterte was pretty feverish on his position with respect to China on the South China Sea. His victory coupled by his Chinese ascendancy and anti-Americanism may have propelled him to go sky rocketing over his outpourings on US.
The exchange for re alignment of a new geo political philosophy may have rejuvenated him to posture and grand stand over aligning to the Chinese. Interestingly he has acknowledged staying with Washington would be in his country’s best interest however he followed up with a sarcastic jab that he won’t travel there in his lifetime.
The foreign policy angle is no doubt the core of Manila exploring to strengthen its ties with Beiing and ASEAN and may be in the midst of it those words of separation were given a lot of weight. On the contrary the South China Sea dispute and claims of Chinese hold over the disputed waters wont dilute or get washed away by this new found friendship.
Mr Duterte has to opt for a leverage. Even if ties with Washington in lieu with other spheres may not get affected, a dent even in military cooperation is something Manila cant risk in the advent of a Chinese occupation and dominance in the region. Although phrases like ‘’spring time’’ and ‘’milestone’’ were used as adjectives in the air to describe the new relationship when Chinese President met the new coronated Filipino leader, ‘’United states has lost’’ rhetoric seemed to have been a product of a mixed variety. Improvement in relations was there but it was more sort of an elaborate photo opportunity.
Whilst a partly investments and big business worth multiple billion dollars was hailed as ground breaking, an energy rich South China Sea embedded with a 5 trillion-dollar trade traffic is mouth-watering to think about being regional brothers and oriental.
The newly elected President and his drift towards the Chinese was reportedly to severe from ‘imperialistic colonialism’ and domination by the US. However, the second largest economy in the world is more prone to making its own colonies and so strategic initiatives with respect to foreign policies cannot be taken by a simple break and align formula but an overlapping gleam of leverages and associations. This is especially when the majority of the population at home still favor better relations with the US than all the cheer leading show of power hosted by the Communist Beijing as a so called regional Pacific show of strength.