PerryScope – Duterte pivots back to America

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“ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL” is a proverb that dates back to 1250.  It is also the name of a play by William Shakespeare in 1601-1605.  It means that a positive ending can overshadow any problems that may have preceded it.   

A case in point is the US-Philippines relationship since Rodrigo Duterte took over the presidency in 2016.  Duterte was a left-leaning politician who was mayor of Davao City for more than two decades.  When he was elected president in 2016, he showed his anti-American bias from the moment he took office.  He pivoted the Philippines’ foreign policy away from Washington DC and toward Beijing.  It was a change that affected the Philippines’ security and territorial sovereignty; e.g., when China sent some 220 ships from China’s maritime militia to Whitsun Reef in the Spratlys and stayed there for several weeks.  It was apparent that China was planning on seizing the reef like what it did in 1994 when it seized the Panganiban (Mischief) Reef.  China knew then that the U.S. wouldn’t interfere after the Philippines kicked the American bases out in 1992 when the Senate voted not to renew the U.S. bases agreement.  This time around, the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier strike group that prompted China to disperse its ships away from Whitsun Reef. 

Duterte’s separation from U.S.

When Duterte went to China on a four-day state visit in October 2016, Duterte talked to the Chinese and Filipino business people at a forum in the Great Hall of the People.  The forum was attended by no less than Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli.  “America has lost now,” Duterte began, “I have realigned myself in your ideological flow, and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world — China, Philippines and Russia. It is the only way.”  Whoa!  What the heck happened?  Has Duterte gone loco-loco?

In his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping afterwards, Xi was conciliatory and called the visit a milestone in ties.  Xi told Duterte that China and the Philippines were brothers and they could “appropriately handle disputes,” without mentioning the South China Sea, which is in the center of a territorial dispute between China and the Philippines.  However, privately, the two agreed to resolve their South China Sea dispute through talks.  But for that day, it was a cause for celebration between Asian “brothers.”

Duterte went home and boasted of securing $24 billion in investment, credit and loan pledges from China to fund his “Build, Build, Build” projects.  In return, Duterte promised Xi that the Philippines would “give up” its South China Sea claims and also abandon its previous position on The Hague’s tribunal verdict that rejected China’s “nine-dash line” territorial claims.

To date, few of these have materialized into actual projects.  Only two out of nine infrastructure projects have been funded for a measly P16.57 billion or $331 million, which makes one wonder:  Would China ever deliver the rest of its pledges?

But here’s the rub: When Duterte announced that he was separating from America, he said he would also be dependent on China for a long time.  Can Duterte really trust that Xi would treat the Philippines like how the US treated the Philippines in the last century? 

“I will not go to America anymore. We will just be insulted there,” Duterte said. “So time to say goodbye my friend,” Duterte told a cheering crowd.

That was five years ago.

Today, Duterte is pivoting the Philippines back to its longtime ally the U.S.  Years of “dancing” with the dragon emperor had produced only $331 million out of $24 billion pledged.  With just six years and seven months left of his presidency, Duterte realizes that the promises that Xi Jinping made are not going to happen.  He decided to end his China-friendly policy and veer back to good old reliable Uncle Sam. 

Duterte thought that he could play China against the U.S. but ended up being played by China.  Like a jilted suitor, Duterte turned around and went scurrying back to Uncle Sam.  Needless to say, Uncle Sam will always welcome the Philippines back under its protective nuclear umbrella.   

Defense agreements with U.S.

The Philippines and the U.S. have three defense agreements: the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).  But the VFA is the linchpin of their military alliance.  The VFA makes it easier for US forces to move in and out the country, while the EDCA allows U.S. forces to move in and out on five Philippine bases fairly quickly.  They therefore provide the Philippines with the means to counter China in the event that hostilities break out between the two countries.  Without these defense treaties, the Philippines is helpless and powerless to stop Chinese aggression.  Without the VFA and EDCA, foreign forces are banned by the 1987 constitution from being stationed on Philippine soil, which would make the MDT unenforceable and useless.

In late July, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited the Philippines to talk with Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.  They agreed that the VFA, which Duterte had suspended its termination three times, will be restored permanently; which raises the question: What did Austin tell Lorenzana that prompted Duterte to keep the VFA?  

In addition, the Philippines-U.S. Bilateral Strategic Dialogue was reestablished and Duterte fully endorsed the AUKUS security pact between Australia, U.S. and U.K. – a 180-degree turnaround from his previous stance that AUKUS could trigger a “nuclear arms race.”   It now appears that Duterte has abandoned China in order to rebuild his ties with Uncle Sam. 

Deter Chinese aggression

The commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Adm. John Aquilino, visited the Philippines twice, in August and September, and said the “U.S. wants to increase the complexity and scope” of exercises and invite new partners — like Australia — to join. 

Recent geopolitical development in the Indo-Pacific region further bolsters Australia’s role as a key partner of the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific, which includes the Philippines.

Recently, the Philippines and Australia finalized a Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement (MLSA), which would facilitate defense logistics support and allow their armed forces to conduct more complex engagements and enhance their interoperability.  It would thus make it easier for them to work in addressing regional security challenges.

MLSA would further strengthen an existing agreement, called State of Visiting Forces Agreement (SOVFA), which was put into effect in 2012.  It governs the entry of Australian troops to the country.  The armed forces of both countries have regularly conducted exercises under SOVFA.

The Philippines is a significant segment of the First Island Chain, which is the natural barrier that provides a J-shaped line of defense from Japan through Taiwan, the Philippines, Borneo, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam. Six of them are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEANS). 

Indeed, the Philippines’ pivoting back to America has once again strengthened the First Island Chain as America’s first line of defense in the Indo-Pacific region.

Like they say, “All’s well that ends well.”

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