Whether it was by design or just fortuitous, the appointment of Korean-American diplomat, Sung Kim, as Washington’s new man in Manila, looks like a very smart move. US-Philippine ties are at their lowest ebb possibly since the founding of the Third Republic of the Philippines in 1946. On the surface, at least, they look like they’re on a knife edge.
Kim’s job will be to calm the waters and find common ground on which to rebuild those ties. No one would suggest this will be easy – particularly, given what the US is seeking from reconciliation – something approaching a return to the traditional status quo. But if Kim maintains his sangfroid and lives up to his reputation as an effective negotiator, then some degree of success is likely.
Sworn-in as US Ambassador to the Philippines by Secretary of State, John Kerry, on Thursday, Kim was nominated for the post by US President, Barack Obama, on 19 May – ten days after Rodrigo Duterte won the Philippine presidency. Back then, however, it was already apparent that Duterte had serious misgivings about his country’s virtual status as a client state of the US and that the “special relationship” was going to be challenged.
To recap: Washington’s overt support of former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino’s anti-China policy – amplified by taking China to an international tribunal over a South China Sea territorial dispute – had already been decried by Duterte for fanning the flames of conflict in the region. He had already said, too, that the court action was a big mistake and that he would be seeking bilateral dialogue with Beijing. So there was the clue.
Perhaps that played some part in Obama’s choice of Kim, the first ethnic Asian to be given the Manila post. Irrespective of that, what is clear is that he comes with the right credentials to tackle the task ahead. For the past eight years, he was dealing with North Korea, a country with which the US has no diplomatic relations. He was US Special Envoy to the Six-Party Talks – a near-futile process aimed at seeking security guarantees from Pyongyang over its nuclear-weapons programme. He is a former US Ambassador to South Korea and, most recently, US Special Representative for North Korea Policy. In the context of that, his Philippines appointment looks like moving from the fire into the frying pan.
But he certainly won’t be under any illusions about the sensitive nature of attempting to rescue US-Philippine ties. Duterte has talked of “separation” from its former colonial occupiers. That’s a strong word; it implies finality – though in reality ties with America are not going to be severed and that was never Duterte’s plan anyway. Trade and investment, cultural ties, people-to-people exchanges etc. will continue. Duterte doesn’t have a problem with the American people; he has a problem with the prevailing attitudes towards his country by the American government. His requirements, in fact, are quite specific.
First and foremost, he wants America to respect Philippine sovereignty, and no longer treat it like a quasi-dependency or an impoverished country cousin. This includes staying out of its internal affairs – such as its war on drugs – and to refrain from trying to influence its foreign policy. Had it done that, this episode in their joint history probably never would have been written.
Secondly, the future course for Asia – more particularly where it concerns the Asean countries and East Asia – Duterte believes is a matter for the region and not for the White House and the Pentagon. It should not be dominated by US trade considerations nor be used as a playground for US tactical war games. This brings us to the third point, that the US military presence in his country – not least, from the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, signed by Aquino in 2014, allowing American servicemen and contractors to be accommodated on five Philippine bases until 2024 – is problematic and needs to be reviewed.
It’s unlikely that Kim will be able to change any of that thinking. On all three issues, Manila’s recent alignment to Beijing virtually ensures that. The best he can hope to achieve is to restore diplomatic relations to a workable level. And in fairness, the US has already made some noises that should help.
Last week, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, Daniel R. Russel, struck a conciliatory tone on Duterte’s China initiative: “an independent foreign policy is no more, no less what we expect from any partner. It doesn’t mean we’re at odds”.
However, while diplomatic circles in Washington will be hoping that Kim can patch things up; and fairly quickly – before the increasingly likely nexus of the Philippines with China and Russia becomes a fait accompli – Kim might be handicapped by other elements from back home.
Such as: careless, populist remarks made by members of the US Congress, threatening to withhold trade, for example, or vicious attacks by Washington’s propagandists in the mainstream media and from US-backed NGOs and liberty groups, demanding the Philippine president be investigated for human-rights crimes. These will present major impediments for Kim. Dampening recent diplomatic blazes while fighting a rear-guard action against new incoming could make his task impossible.
Duterte is sensitive – often with cause – there’s no question about that, and Kim will be on the carpet, summoned to Malacañang, to explain what will be seen as further US interference.
And so, Duterte’s prosecution of the drugs war cannot be broached – at least not in a critical sense. If Kim does, or if he brings up the subject of human rights in the Philippines, his mission will be virtually dead in the water. But, of course, he knows that. After all, that – more than anything – is precisely why he’s faced with this task now.
At his swearing-in Ambassador Kim made this assertion: “The US and the Philippines are, and will continue to be, close friends, partners and allies”. And although the political map has changed – provided that the antagonism from certain elements under Washington’s control cease – there is no reason on Earth why Kim’s affirmation will not be the case. In the end, political posturing aside, that’s what all concerned parties want.