While Washington says it accepts that the Philippines is a sovereign state and free to follow its own course – responding to President Rodrigo Duterte’s announcement that he’s seeking closer ties with China and Russia – there’s no doubt that the US administration is far from happy that its near-exclusive relationship with Manila is coming to an end. The timing too, as the US pushes its “Pivot to East Asia” geopolitical strategy, could not have been worse. But surely none of this has come as a shock. This has been on the cards for months.
There’s no doubt US President Barack Obama was aware that dealing with Duterte would be far more challenging than handling his predecessor, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino. For one thing, Duterte is no Americophile; for another he’s a nationalist. But above all he is distrusting of US motives and machinations where the Philippines is concerned.
Obama has tried to play a patient game of diplomacy to gain Duterte’s confidence. He has downplayed the invective from Duterte – publicly at least; he sent his Secretary of State, John Kerry, to meet the Duterte less than a month after he took office. His hope was that Washington could play a key brokerage role in any discussions, favoured by Duterte, between Manila and Beijing over resolving the dispute over the South China Sea islands – the rocky outcrops of Scarborough Shoal which just a handful of days earlier had been deemed sovereign Philippine territory by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
Likewise, Washington’s criticism of Duterte over the matter of extrajudicial killings which have piled up during the president’s war on drugs, has been more muted, more reserved, than that of other Western leaders such as those of the EU, Canada and Australia.
So on the face of it, it would appear that the US Government was being supportive of Duterte’s policy positions on wanting to settle its difference with China through negotiations, and on wanting to rid his country of a drugs pandemic – bloody though that was turning out to be.
But none of this should be taken at face value; and Duterte didn’t. First of all, on the question of the Scarborough Shoal dispute. Duterte believed it was always a mistake to inflame relations with its neighbour China by making the issue a highly charged international case which is precisely what Aquino had done when he took it to The Hague – and with the full support and backing at the time of the US. The re-emergence of American troops on Philippine soil, via the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, was all bound up in that. This was, as far as Aquino understood, a display of American might that would dissuade China’s adventuring in Philippine waters. In fact, it was part and parcel of Washington’s Pivot to East Asia. It was the military trappings of an American-led global trade onslaught into the region.
With respect to America’s quieter tone over the war on drugs, the veneer of that was so thin it was transparent. The main criticism, vicious and unrestrained, mostly came from Washington affiliates – the United Nations, 70% paid for by the US; Human Rights Watch and other US-sponsored NGOs, and of course, the Obama administration’s propaganda wing, the American mainstream media. While all these coordinated their attacks on Duterte – urging that he be brought before a war crimes tribunal, for example – Washington played Good Cop.
In all this, however, the Obama White House seriously miscalculated Duterte’s resolve. What had worked with Aquino and his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo – the usual cocktail of flattery and reassurances and the “special relationship” card – was never going to work with Duterte. Of course, the State Department should have known that, but it looks like it believed that its powers of persuasion would be weightier than his determination to plough his own furrow for the Philippine future.
It also played a very clumsy hand with regards to China and Russia. Its constant rows with those two countries on the international stage virtually signaled to them that the Philippines – given the importance of its strategic location and its historic allegiance to the US – would be the perfect place for them to diplomatically bloody Washington’s nose.
They wasted no time in opening up relations. Russia, through its ambassador, has already met Duterte a week before the election. Similar contact had been made by Chinese emissaries.
Now they are both in trade talks with Manila, and one item that should give the US particular pause for thought is the supply of arms via a 25-year soft loan which is now being negotiated with its two new suitors. Since 1950, American weapons have accounted for 75% of all arms imports to the Philippines, according to the Stockholm International Institute, while China and Russia have never exported arms there. For Washington, this is far more serious than the loss of a sales contract. This speaks of potential defence treaties – again, once the prerogative of the US.
There’s little doubt that bilateral relations between Manila and Beijing and between Manila and Moscow will be swiftly stepped up. Duterte is expected to meet his counterparts in both the People’s Republic and the Russian Federation before the end of the year. Meanwhile, The VolatilianTM has no information regarding an imminent trip by Duterte to the United States.