Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte is a controversial leader. He cusses out world leaders. He recently compared himself to Hitler in a positive light. His war on drugs has resulted in thousands of civilian deaths.
But perhaps most shocking of all is Duterte’s massive upheaval of foreign policy. The Philippines, one of the oldest eastern partners with the US, is drifting away.
The Philippines has a long history with the United States. It is a major Asian partner for the United States and has been designated a major non-NATO ally. Since the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951, the Philippines has hosted military exercises and operated bases with the United States. Throughout the last several decades, the Philippines has served as a major staging area for military forces. In the 1980s, the US military stationed around twenty-five thousand personnel in the Philippines.
That was during the height of the Cold War. But the Philippines wasn’t a rich or particularly important nation compared to other US allies: UK, France, Germany, Japan, or South Korea. The United States don’t get oil from the Philippines, nor is the Philippines a major trading partner. The Philippines isn’t an ally.
It is a proxy.
The United States uses diplomacy and economic incentives to push the Philippines to extend the US sphere of influence far into the Pacific. As a result, many of the foreign policy decisions taken by the Filipino government are set by the US State Department. At times, the Philippines was simply an extension of the United States’ will, a proxy.
One of Obama’s big foreign policy changes from the Bush administration was the so-called Pivot Towards Asia. After conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States turned its gaze towards the strategic rebalancing of power in the Pacific. The growing military and economic might of China, coupled with the wilting of the Japanese dominance of the region, meant that the United States needed to bolster diplomatic efforts in an effort to counter Chinese expansion.
The Philippines is no exception. China has been pushing out into international waters and challenging US allies with newfound confidence, and US partners and allies have begun pushing back. The United States, too, has begun active diplomacy and economic statecraft to prop up their regional allies in order to balance the scales.
Duterte threatens this fragile balance.
“I announce my separation from the United States.”
Duterte recently stated that only China “has the resources” to create economic modernization in the Philippines. He recently ended joint Philippine-American naval patrols in the South China sea. And when The Hague ruled that Chinese expansion into Filipino waters was illegal and in violation of international maritime law, Duterte didn’t put the pressure on China. In fact, he didn’t seem to care.
Analysts seem alarmed by the rapid reversal in the Philippines’ foreign policy, but the truth of the matter is that this course was set almost one hundred years ago.
In a recent press conference, Duterte criticized the United States’ history in the Philippines and held up black and white photographs. It was photographs of the Bud Dajo Massacre of 1906. In the photos were the Moro people, a group of Filipino Muslims who rebelled against American neo-colonial rule. Women. Children. Also in the pictures: American soldiers, dumping their bodies into a mass grave.
Duterte grew up under US colonial rule in a community that still remembers the Massacre of Moros. He now scoffs when Washington criticizes him on human rights abuses. And now his longstanding resentment towards the United States is now actively crippling their relations.
“America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow.”
Duterte has just concluded a massively important state visit to China, where he signed a massive 24-billion-dollar investment and financing deal. Manufacturing. Finance. Telecommunications. Tourism. Infrastructure.
If the Philippines aligns itself with China, the delicate diplomatic actions undertaken by the Obama administration to counter Chinese influence will have failed. Foreign policy experts fear that if the Philippines renounces the United States, other nations will follow. Vietnam, despite significant domestic dislike of the Chinese, has already made forays into China’s good graces and has remained largely silent on enforcing international maritime boundaries.
If China can claim sole jurisdiction over the South China sea, analysts fear huge economic consequences. Major shipping lanes are present in the waters, and China could leverage control over these lanes to slow or cripple economies. China has already begun harassing foreign fishing vessels, harming Filipino, Japanese, and Vietnamese fishing industries. The South China sea is resource rich and a major strategic zone for the Asian region, and tipping the scales to Chinese jurisdiction would cripple US power in the area.
The Philippines is one of the several nations that had the legal jurisdiction to push back against China. Now other US allies like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, will have to redouble their efforts to resist Chinese dominance in the region.
Ironically, China has beaten the United States at their own game. Dollar diplomacy once was the cornerstone tactic in the Pacific. Now the honor goes to the yuan. And with the diminishing of the power of the dollar, so goes influence over the Philippines.