When Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory message to President Rodrigo Duterte on the occasion of his inauguration as president of the Philippines, Duterte heaped praise on Xi, describing him “a great president.” “I was honored, receiving a congratulatory message from a great president, uh prime minister,” Duterte said. The Chinese foreign ministry released a statement that it is a standard diplomatic tradition for heads of state to send congratulatory messages. But to Duterte, it was a big deal. Thus began the “friendship” between Duterte and Xi.
Duterte then made a series of announcements, one of which called for the withdrawal of U.S. Special Forces troops from Mindanao, saying their “presence could complicate offensives against Islamist militants notorious for beheading Westerners.”
Duterte also declared that the upcoming U.S.-Philippines joint military exercises would be “the last” and ruled out any joint navy patrols in the West Philippine Sea. However, he pledged to honor the country’s security treaty with the U.S. He said that China opposed joint marine drills in the Philippines. He said that there would be no more war games with the U.S. after that. “I am serving notice now to the Americans, this will be the last military exercise,” he said.
During a state visit to China last October where he announced his military and economic “separation” from the U.S., Duterte told an audience of business leaders, “America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow.” He added, “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’s the only way.”
But when President-elect Donald Trump called Duterte last December, Duterte was on cloud nine. During their seven-minute conversation, Trump praised Duterte for doing “the right way” in his fight against illegal drugs. He later told the media, “I could sense a good rapport, an animated President-elect Trump. And he was wishing me success in my campaign against the drug problem.” At that time, Duterte’s “war on drugs” had left 4,500 dead – killed by the police and vigilantes.
Last March, speaking before the Integrated Bar of the Philippines convention, Duterte berated the U.S. for failing to stop China’s building activities in the disputed West Philippine Sea. In an indirect reference to then President Obama, he said: “Why did you not at the first instance, go to the Chinese working and building structures there? Why didn’t you admonish them? Why didn’t you deploy five aircraft carriers and threaten to fire on them?” Of course, it was common knowledge that Obama’s oft-repeated answer when he was asked about China’s construction of artificial islands on several reefs in the Spratlys was: The U.S. remains neutral in the territorial and maritime disputes between China and the other five claimant nations. Needless to say, Obama’s neutrality in the disputes gave China a carte blanche to do whatever she wants to do in the South China Sea (SCS). It’s no wonder then that Duterte couldn’t rely on the U.S. — in spite of the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) — to maintain the status quo in the SCS. With no war-capable warships and warplanes, the Philippines doesn’t have the capability to protect her sovereignty and territorial integrity.
But the geopolitical calculus has changed since Trump assumed the U.S. presidency. His predecessor, former president Barack Obama’s doctrine of “strategic patience” – a euphemism for appeasement – didn’t work with China and North Korea. Obama should have known that these two communist countries see appeasement as a sign of weakness. It didn’t surprise anyone then that China played Obama’s “strategic patience” to her advantage and took possession of several islands in the SCS. Obama maintained his “neutrality.”
Recently, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited South Korea to reassure Seoul of the U.S. commitment to defend the country from North Korea. He told South Korea that the era of “strategic patience” is over and warned North Korea not to test Trump’s resolve, noting that Trump had ordered a missile strike against Syria.
Trump’s order to strike at a Syrian airbase and to drop the “mother of all bombs” on an ISIS camp in Afghanistan must have convinced Duterte that there is a new ball game Uncle Sam is playing on the world stage. It didn’t take long for Duterte to cozy up to Trump. Speaking in Doha, Qatar, he heaped praise on Trump, calling him “a realist and a pragmatic thinker.” “Trump is profound even if he does not seem to be one. Just like me, I am not that bright but I am very deliberate,” he said. “Just like me…” cements the affinity of the two leaders, who are in so many ways similar in their idiosyncrasies and brashness.
Consequently, Duterte agreed to hold the joint U.S.-Philippines exercise known as Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder), despite earlier pronouncements that he might cancel joint exercises with the Americans, including withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country. And this begs the question: What caused Duterte to change his anti-American rhetoric to a friendlier tone?
Could it be that recent incident of Chinese intrusion into the Benham Rise and news report of China’s plans to build an “environmental monitoring station” on Scarborough Shoal awakened Duterte from his dream of everlasting love affair with China? But the reality is: China dreams of becoming the undisputed hegemon in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. And that entails having naval superiority over the entire Pacific Ocean all the way to the Indian Ocean.
A recent news report said, “A group of Filipino fishermen accused China’s coast guard of shooting at their vessel in the disputed South China Sea.” A Philippine Coast Guard statement said that a Chinese speedboat fired seven times at the vessel. The incident happened near the disputed Union Banks atoll in the center of Spratly Islands, 143 miles from Palawan, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Asked about the incident, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said: “I have no information on that. And as you have said, it is unclear who was responsible. China will also need to verify the facts.”
Last April 21, it was reported in the news that the Chinese Navy challenged two Philippine fighter planes, one of which was carrying Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Armed Forces Chief Gen. Eduardo Ano, who were enroute to Pag-Asa Island in the West Philippine Sea. The Chinese warned that the aircraft were illegally entering Chinese territory and they should leave to avoid “miscalculation.” Beijing expressed alarm over the visit, saying it ran counter to an “important consensus” related between the leaders of the two countries. Which raises the question: Did Duterte relinquish sovereignty of Pag-asa Island to appease China?
Duterte has so far reacted by playing a balancing act, pitting the U.S. against China. While this kind of “balancing act” might work with Vietnam and Indonesia, Duterte doesn’t have the temerity that the two leaders of Indonesia and Vietnam have in asserting their sovereignty.
In the past several weeks, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and Vice President Mike Pence visited several Asian countries and Australia. None of them visited the Philippines, which raises the question: Why is Uncle Sam ignoring Duterte? Is Trump sending Duterte a clear message that he has to do more than a “balancing act” – teetering back and forth between China and the U.S. — to become a key geopolitical player in Asia?
Last April 11, former President Fidel V. Ramos, speaking during the commemoration of the Bataan Death March of 1942 – where some 30,000 Filipinos and 2,000 Americans died — said that the U.S. is the Philippines’ “most sincere, devoted, patriotic, and fearless” ally. He then expressed his hope that Duterte would “realize in time the great importance of the decades-long relationship between the Philippines and the U.S.”
Duterte and Trump will have a chance to meet in November during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) summit and East Asian Summit in Manila. This would give Duterte and Trump a chance to measure each other up and work to reinforce their countries’ alliance, which has endured for more than 70 years.