It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day static of the media cycle. But one underreported story is how the US has, in the last few months, gone from hero to zero in the Philippines, one of our closest allies in the Pacific. Since taking office in late June, President Rodrigo Duterte has:
- pledged to end joint US-Filipino military exercises;
- stopped joint US-Filipino naval patrols in the South China Sea; and
- called to remove US Special Operations Forces advising the Philippine military fighting insurgents, including Abu Sayyaf.
So, who benefits from this seismic shift in Filipino policy?
The People’s Republic of China, of course. Through Duterte’s actions, Beijing just peeled off a strategic US ally with little diplomatic or military fallout.
Why the sudden shift to China by Manila? It’s a bit unclear, but China was not a major issue during the last Presidential election, which hinged on whether President Benigno Aquino’s uncorrupt, economy-expanding policies should continue. But now that “Duterte Harry” is in charge, who knows whether Aquino’s efforts to clean up the Philippines’ institutional corruption will continue, or will backslide.
Of course, the usual suspects will say it’s President Obama’s fault the US-Philippines alliance is fraying. That’s baloney; US doesn’t call the shots. If Washington did, this situation wouldn’t be happening. Democracy is messy, and sometimes lousy folks make it to the top.
Here’s my completely evidence-free speculation: I think something more grubby or corrupt is afoot. Maybe there is “an understanding” between Duterte and Beijing. Otherwise, why this sudden about-face in Manila—coming in at the exact time when China is fortifying its claims in the South China Sea?
On the other hand, maybe Duterte is shooting from the hip. In late August, he warned of a “bloody confrontation” between his navy and the People’s Liberation Army-Navy if there was a Chinese invasion. Maybe he’s playing both Washington and Beijing, trying to see what he can squeeze from both world powers. Maybe he has no idea what he’s doing.
Still, from a US national security perspective, the Duterte government’s volte-face on so many issues so quickly suggests a close American alliance in Asia is about to get a major downgrade.
Xi Jinping must be smiling.
photo credit: U.S. Air Force pararescuemen with the 31st Rescue Squadron prepare to land after jumping from a Marine Corps MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft during Balikatan 2014 in Basa, Philippines, May 13, 2014. Department of Defense.
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