Pivot to China

Print edition : November 25, 2016

Filipino tribal groups and activists shout slogans as they burn a mock U.S. flag near the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila on October 21. Hundreds of left-wing activists who took part in the protest urged President Rodrigo Duterte to take punitive action against policemen who rammed a van on some of them in a brutal dispersal near the U.S. Embassy. Photo: Aaron Favila/AP

President Duterte (right) and Chinese President Xi Jinping review the guard of honour as they attend a ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 20, a day after Duterte said it was "time to say goodbye" to the U.S. Photo: AFP

U.S. marines riding amphibious assault vehicles in the U.S.-Philippines joint annual beach landing exercise on the shores facing the South China Sea in San Antonio town, Zambales province, north of Manila. The U.S. wanted to remain involved in the campaign to quell Islamic militancy in the southern Philippines, its Ambassador to Manila said on October 25 after President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to show American forces the door. Photo: Ted Aljibe/AFP

The new President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, is seen to be moving close to China and appears willing to reverse the military alliance with the U.S.

THE election of Rodrigo Duterte to the Philippine presidency could mean the United States’ worst nightmare in the region coming true. The Philippines is the linchpin of the Obama administration’s military “pivot to the East”, aimed at militarily encircling China. Now, within a few months after being sworn in as President, Duterte is threatening to upset the American applecart by not only cosying up to China but also threatening political and military “separation” from the U.S. The Philippines is the U.S.’ oldest military ally in the region.

This former U.S. colony sided with the U.S. in all the wars it waged in the region, including those in the Korean Peninsula and Vietnam. The U.S. military bases of Clark and Subic Bay in the Philippines are among the biggest in the region.

After a hiatus of over two decades, the previous government under President Benigno Aquino had once again given access to the U.S. military to the bases. The two countries signed the Manila Declaration in 2011, reaffirming their close defence ties. During the signing ceremony, the then U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, declared that the U.S. would always stand shoulder to shoulder with the Philippines. “We will always stand by you and achieve the future we seek,” she said. Soon after, the U.S. military pivot to the East was announced. In April 2014, the U.S. and the Philippines signed an Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which would allow the U.S. military access to designated areas controlled by the Philippine armed forces. The EDCA can be terminated by either party on a year’s notice. The purpose of the EDCA is clear—to confront China, with U.S. military backing, over the contested waters of the South China Sea.

Love-hate ties

The Filipinos have had a love-hate relationship with the Americans. The U.S. “liberated” the Philippines when it was on the verge of declaring independence from Spain. U.S. colonial rule was described as benign in comparison with that of the Spanish colonialists. Filipinos were portrayed as “little brown brothers” in the U.S. media. Large tracts of land were taken over by U.S. companies for fruit and rubber cultivation.

A rapacious landowning Filipino elite willingly collaborated with the new colonial power. The Americans were forced out of the Philippines in the aftermath of the Japanese invasion of the islands during the Second World War. The Philippines was granted independence after the War, but power was transferred to a subservient landowning elite, which still remains a powerful force in the country’s politics.

The first serious attempt to get rid of the U.S.’ all-pervading influence on Philippine politics was the Hukbalahap rebellion launched by the undivided Philippine Communist Party. Cadres of the Communist Party had played a leading role in the struggle against Japanese occupation. The revolutionary movement would have succeeded in gaining power but for U.S. intervention on behalf of the Filipino elite. The Cold War had also started, and the U.S. started propounding the “domino theory”: if one country in the South-East Asian region came under communist rule, the other countries would fall to the “Red menace” like a pack of cards.

The British successfully crushed a revolt led by the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) in the early 1950s. The tactics used by the British were replicated in a big way in the Philippines to defeat the Huks, as the Philippine Communists were called. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) dispatched an operative named Edward Lansdale to the Philippines to work in tandem with a politician named Ramon Magsaysay who had ascended to the presidency.

The Huks were brutally crushed and Magsaysay, described aptly by a contemporary historian as “the perfect puppet who danced on the CIA’s strings”, was hailed as a hero. The CIA provided the seed money for the Magsaysay awards that are handed out annually with great fanfare. Magsaysay died in an air crash in 1957. Since then, Philippine Presidents have generally preferred to be close allies of the U.S.

In 1991, after popular street protests with left-wing activists at the forefront, the Philippines refused to renew the lease for the use of the Clark and Subic Bay bases to the Americans. The government, then headed by Corazon Aquino, Benigno’s mother, was in favour of renewing the basing agreement, which had expired. But the majority in the Philippine Senate was opposed to the continuing U.S. military presence in the country and refused to ratify the agreement reached between the two governments. But after the events of 9/11, the U.S. military made a back-door entry into the Philippines in the guise of fighting international terrorism. U.S. special forces were particularly active on the island of Mindanao, where the current President hails from. Duterte had been saying for some time that the U.S. military presence in Mindanao and other parts of the Philippines had only succeeded in exacerbating problems. He even accused the Americans of staging “terror incidents” to justify their presence in the country.

‘Left-leaning President’

On the campaign trail, Duterte pledged to be the first “left-leaning President” of the Philippines. He has made no bones about his closeness to the banned Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New Peoples Army (NPA). The NPA has been waging an armed struggle since the late 1960s.

One of the first things that Duterte did after taking office was to announce the resumption of peace talks with the NPA. He ordered the release of two senior CPP leaders from jail so that they could participate in the talks held in the Netherlands. Duterte also said that he was against any “confrontation” with Beijing on the contentious South China Sea issue. He cast doubts on the U.S.’ willingness to militarily confront China in case the Philippines was to really come under attack.

As soon as he took office, Duterte indicated that he was keen on “realigning” the country’s foreign policy and that he preferred a negotiated settlement of the territorial dispute with China. He wants U.S. special forces personnel to leave the island of Mindanao, where they are combating Islamists. Before his official visit to China in the third week of October, Duterte announced plans to scrap joint annual military exercises with the Americans. He went a step further, saying that the Philippines would from now on focus on strengthening ties with China and Russia. He has since announced that arms would also be purchased from China and Russia. The Obama administration, though rattled by the turn of events, is putting up a show of business as usual with Manila. “As it has been for decades, our alliance with the Philippines is ironclad,” said Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter. The U.S. embassy in Manila issued a statement implying that it was incumbent on the Philippine government to honour its treaty commitments. The departing American ambassador to the Philippines said that Duterte’s statements were, however, “inconsistent with friendship and alliances”.

President Duterte was warmly received in Beijing during his state visit. He told the Filipinos who had gathered to welcome him in Beijing that “it was time to say goodbye to the U.S.”. Deals worth over $13 billion were signed. China has pledged to invest heavily in the country’s infrastructure. Duterte’s dream is to connect the island of Luzon, where the capital, Manila, is located, to the island of Mindanao, the President’s power base. China has signalled its willingness to help in the execution of this ambitious project. President Xi Jinping and Duterte seem to have agreed to put the South China Sea issue on the back burner despite the fact that the Philippines was the victor in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruling on the dispute.

China had said from the beginning that it would never recognise the U.N. court’s judgment. Duterte, on his return home, said that the U.N. tribunal’s decision “would take a back seat”. Duterte and President Xi have agreed to resume direct talks on the South China Sea after many years of escalating tensions stoked by the U.S. The Philippines had cut off talks with China in 2012. By declining to take a tough stand on the U.N. tribunal’s judgment, the Philippines has made it difficult for the U.S. to mobilise international opinion in favour of its stance on the South China Sea. India is among the countries that support the U.S. on the South China Sea issue and it was quick to issue a statement congratulating the Philippines on its legal victory at The Hague. The Philippines will be assuming the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) grouping next year and will no longer play the role of spoiler on behalf of the U.S. The Philippines is also expected to play a more active role in China’s Belt Road initiative.

Japan trip

Duterte embarked on a trip to Japan after his return from China. He told Filipino and Japanese businessmen in Tokyo that he would “revise or abrogate” the defence treaty agreement with the U.S. and reiterated that he wanted all foreign troops out of the country “within two years”. He said that he did not want Philippine territory to host offensive weapons such as missiles targeted at third countries. “I do not need missiles to be based in my country. I do not need to have the airports that host the bombers,” he said in Tokyo. The Philippine Foreign Secretary, Perfecto Yasay, had earlier said that it was time for his countrymen to shake off the “invisible chains that reined us in towards dependency and submission as little brown brothers not capable of true independence and freedom”. In another comment, he justified the need for a new foreign policy direction, saying that “America has failed us”.

Duterte’s pivot to China is being described in some sections of the Western media as the biggest setback for the U.S. in the region since the fall of Saigon. The U.S. will not take things lying down. The U.S. media are already going to town describing the new Philippine President as delusional and maybe even deranged. Duterte is not known to be diplomatically astute and continues to speak his mind unmindful of the consequences. The Obama administration is laying considerable stress on the findings of a Pew Research Centre poll in 2015 that showed that the overwhelming majority of the Filipinos viewed the U.S. favourably. Another recent opinion poll, however, showed that President Duterte’s popularity rating crossed 75 per cent after he took office and went ahead with his controversial anti-drug campaign.

The Americans may try to manipulate sections of the army in their efforts to destabilise the new government. Sections of the army had tried to interfere in the country’s politics in the 1980s and the 1990s. Fidel Ramos, a former President, was an army chief of staff. Ramos, however, is a political ally of Duterte these days. Duterte has said that the threat of assassination hovers over him. The Philippine Army, which has close links with the U.S. military, is said to be unhappy with Duterte’s decision to open talks with the NPA and accommodate some CPP members in his Cabinet. The Philippine Army and the NPA have been at war for more than 40 years now.