Philippines: “Separation” from the US and “Pivot” to China
THE election of Rodrigo Duterte to the Philippine presidency could mean the realisation of America's worst nightmare in the region coming true. The Philippines is the lynchpin 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 United States. Philippines is America's oldest military ally in the region. The former colony of the United States had sided with Washington in all the wars it had waged in the region, including the wars in the Korean Peninsula and Vietnam. The American military bases of Clark and Subic 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 American military to the bases. The two countries signed a Manila Declaration in 2011 once again reaffirming their close defense ties. During the signing ceremony, the then US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton declared that the United States will 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 Manila Declaration was issued, the American military pivot to the East was announced. On April 2014, the US and the Philippines signed an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), that will allow the American military to access designated areas controlled by the Philippine armed forces. The EDCA can be terminated by either party after the receipt of a year's notice. The purpose of the EDCA was clear – to confront China with American military backing, over the contested waters of the South China Sea.
The Filipinos have a love/hate relationship with the Americans. The Americans had “liberated” the Philippines when it was on the verge of declaring independence from Spain. American colonial rule was described as benign in comparison to that of the Spanish colonialists who had preceded them. The Filipinos were portrayed as “little brown brothers” in the American media. Large tracts of land were taken over by American companies for fruit and rubber cultivation. A rapacious land owning 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 Second World War. After the end of the war, the Philippines was granted independence but power was transferred to a subservient landowning elite, that still remains a powerful force in Philippine politics.
The first serious attempt to get rid of the all pervading influence of America on Philippine politics was the Hukbalahap rebellion launched by the undivided Philippine Communist Party. Cadres belonging to 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 American intervention on behalf of the Filipino elite. The cold war had also started and the Americans started propounding the “domino theory”. The theory held that if one country in the Southeast Asian region comes under communist rule, then the other countries would also fall to the “Red menace” like a pack of cards.
The British had successfully crushed a revolt led by the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) in the early 1950's. 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 CIA had dispatched a CIA 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 air crash in 1957 and since then Philippine presidents have generally preferred to be close allies of Washington.
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 by the Americans. The government of the time which was headed by Cory Aquino, Benigno's mother, was in favour of renewing the basing agreement which had expired. But the majority in the Philippine Senate at the time were opposed to the continuing American military presence on their soil and refused to ratify the agreement reached between the two governments. But after the events of 9/11, the United States military made a back door entry into the Philippines in the guise of fighting international terrorism. American 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 American military presence in Mindanao and other parts of the Philippines have only succeeded in exacerbating problems. He had even accused the Americans of staging “terror incidents” to justify their presence in the country.
On the campaign trail, Duterte had pledged to be the first “Left leaning president” of the Philippines. Duterte 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 1960's. One of the first things Duterte did after taking office was to announce the resumption of peace talks with the NPA. He ordered the release of two of the senior most CPP leaders from jail so that they could participate in the talks held in the Netherlands. Duterte had also said that he was against “confrontation” with Beijing on the contentious South China Sea issue. He cast doubts on American 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 American 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 that he 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 purchases for the defense forces would also be now sourced 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 the US secretary of defense, Ashton Carter. The US embassy in Manila issued a statement implying that it was incumbent on the Philippine government to honor its treaty commitments. The departing American ambassador to the Philippines said that Duterte's statements are however “inconsistent with friendship and alliances”.
President Duterte was of course warmly received in Beijing during his state visit. He told Filipinos who had gathered to welcome him in Beijing that “it was time to say goodbye to the US”. More than $13 billion worth of deals were signed. China has pledged to invest heavily in building 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 signaled that it is willing to help in the execution of this ambitious project. President Xi Jinping and Duterte seem to have agreed to push the South China Sea issue on back burner despite the fact that the Philippines was the victor in the UNCLOS ruling on the dispute.
China had said from the beginning that it would never recognise the UN Court's judgment. Duterte on his return home said that the UN 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 United States. The Philippines had cut off talks with China in 2012. By declining to take a tough stand on the UN tribunal's judgment, the Philippines has made it difficult for Washington to mobilise international opinion in favour of its stance on the South China Sea. India is among the countries that support Washington on the South China Sea issue and 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 ASEAN grouping next year and will no longer play the role of spoiler on behalf of Washington. The Philippines is also now expected to play a more active role in China's Belt Road initiative.
Duterte also 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 defense treaty agreement with the US and reiterated that he wanted all foreign troops out of the country “within two years”. Duterte said that he does not want Philippine territory to host offensive weapons like missiles that are 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, the Philippine foreign secretary 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 Washington in the region since the fall of Saigon. The United States will not take things lying down. The American media is 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 Center poll in 2015 that showed that the overwhelming majority of the Filipinos view the Unites States favourably. Another recent opinion poll however showed that President Duterte's popularity rating is more than 75 percent after taking office and going 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 1980's and 1990's. 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 their American counterparts is also 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 more than forty years now.