November 10, 2016
By Davis Florick – Junior Fellow
If Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s enacts his statements on choosing China over the US, he appears willing to discard decades of positive relations with the US for a chance at gains with China. While Mr. Duterte has not yet taken the necessary actions to cement his declarations, Beijing has already reopened areas around the Scarborough Shoal to Manila’s fishing vessels. The Xi Administration would likely not have done so if it did not have sufficient reassurances the Philippines government would carry through on its rhetoric. Unfortunately, statements from the Obama Administration offer the impression the US is willing to tolerate Mr. Duterte’s bellicosity. Given the US’s widespread popularity in the Philippines (according to the Pew Research Center, 92% of Filipinos viewed the US favorably in 2014 and 2015) and China’s pattern of pushing away its partners, the Trump Administration should consider allowing Manila to actualize its threats. Specifically, the Duterte Administration should not be dissuaded from breaking the Philippines’ agreement to allow US personnel on five of its bases and from walking away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Similar to what occurred in the 1990’s, allowing Manila to separate itself from Washington will only expedite the fall of the regime. Moreover, while presidents Duterte and Trump spoke on the phone in early December – at which time the Philippine president promised continued, strong bilateral relations – these statements should be caveated by similar pronouncements he made in Beijing. Indeed, achieving both of these policies may be unachievable and could well come back to haunt Manila. The US would be best served by refocusing its resources on its best partners and allowing the China-Philippines rapprochement to run aground on its own.
In light of the aggressive policies coming from the Philippines, being associated with the Duterte Administration is increasingly difficult for leaders in Australia, Japan, the US, and elsewhere. Manila’s draconian drug war and talk of farfetched schemes like leaving the United Nations and placing the country under martial law symbolize a complete rejection of international norms of behavior. The killing of 3,000 suspected dealers and by name denunciation of over 150 officials accused of supporting the drug trade have come to represent the draconian approach to anti-drug enforcement. Beyond this campaign, declarations by Rodrigo Duterte of major changes in domestic and foreign policy are engendering a volatile environment. Both external and internal observers are beginning to question the sustainability and viability of the Philippines’ direction under its new leadership. For instance, although Standard & Poor’s has yet to lower Manila’s credit rating, in September the credit rating agency was sharply critical of the potential instability being created by the Duterte Administration and raised fears over what that instability might mean for its financial solvency. While developers from Seoul and Tokyo remain intrigued by opportunities to invest in the Philippines’ lagging infrastructure, the new president is not making those decisions easier. Manila’s shift toward Beijing is one more event in a long line of problematic declarations and policies.
Although the US should be prepared to walk away from the Philippines permanently, China’s diplomatic track record suggests the newfound bed fellows may not last. During the imperial era, the Middle Kingdom worked tirelessly to maintain strictly bilateral relationships in order to cement superior-inferior dynamics. By preserving one-on-one diplomatic relations, the empire fostered tributary relationships, thereby ensuring China’s position of strength. In many ways, the historical dynamics of Asia-Pacific diplomacy are playing out again. Yet, because China is no longer a regional hegemon, Beijing is less able to enforce tributary relationships. For instance, by insisting on asserting its rights to territory in the South China Sea, Beijing has pushed Hanoi into the arms of Vietnam’s one-time adversary, the US. Likewise, China’s handling of the North Korean crisis has strengthened defense cooperation among South Korea, Japan, and the US. Although China has granted the Philippines access to fishing estuaries around the Scarborough Shoal and USD 24 billion in investments (including USD 9 billion in soft loans), at some point the Xi Administration will expect something in return. Having alienated Washington, Manila has put itself at the mercy of its new interlocutors in Beijing. Not only has the Philippines changed patrons, but its new partner is also closer and has a history of exercising tributary relationships.
From a strategic vantage point, parting ways with Manila enables Washington to focus on more reliable and valuable regional partners. Repositioning US government investments and interest to places such as Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam will benefit states that have incentives to work with the Trump Administration. The defensive construct referred to as the First Island Chain can then be redefined to include Guam but, more importantly, emphasize southern and western portions of the South China Sea. Relying more heavily on Guam may prove useful given its greater distance from China as compared to the Philippines. Moreover, the island does not come with the same political complications as Manila. Similarly, developing a stronger defense relationship with Indonesia and Singapore preserves the threat posed to Chinese shipping through the Strait of Malacca. Considering the evolving security environment around Vietnam, it is not inconceivable Manila’s shift could spark renewed interest in Hanoi to partner with Washington. Vietnam’s defense investments would serve as a useful tool in reshaping and elevating US regional involvement. Were China to become emboldened by its political victory in the Philippines or if its engagement were to begin to look more like colonialism, Beijing-Manila rapprochement may even drive Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur into closer relationships with Washington. While the US will have to manage regional perceptions stemming from the Philippines’ shift, there are opportunities for this scenario to benefit Washington.
Allowing the Philippines to reprioritize its economic engagement strategy could also serve US long term interests. Under normal circumstances, Washington and the other members of the proposed TPP would benefit from Manila’s participation. While the Philippines’ economy has recently strengthened, the Duterte Administration could hinder future growth. As the earlier statement by Standard & Poor’s articulates, the Philippines leadership is seemingly thrusting Manila into unnecessary turbulence with no clear end in sight. The Duterte Administration could be attempting to clean the Philippines bureaucracy and make the country healthier over the long term. Yet, he is also risking the steady, year-to-year 6-7% gross domestic product growth rate Manila has enjoyed over the last decade. By allowing the Philippines to rely much more so on China, a state experiencing its own economic difficulties and with questions surrounding its willingness to invest in Manila, Washington can place greater pressure on the Duterte Administration. Allowing the current Philippine government to fail on its own without already being a member of the TPP will shield the community from some of the negative repercussions. Once a more amenable regime in Manila has emerged, membership can then be discussed with the TPP community operating from a position of greater strength.
While the Trump Administration could afford to allow the Philippines to walk away, Japan, Vietnam, and others may have a more difficult time accepting Beijing-Manila rapprochement. A significant element of Washington’s diplomacy must be engagement with Hanoi and Tokyo to reassure them of the US commitment. The Philippines’ shift could threaten trade through the South China Sea and weaken the partnership framework that has developed along China’s periphery. While these are legitimate concerns, one must also weigh the potential vulnerabilities associated with defending the Philippines during a crisis. Although transit times will be longer, moving goods around the South China Sea would likely be the best option to protect vital resources during a conflict regardless of Manila’s stance. Similarly, given the threats posed by Chinese forces already stationed in the South China Sea, bolstering indigenous capabilities in Vietnam would reduce reliance on vulnerable east-west transit routes through disputed waters. Reaching Southeast Asia from southern and western options would likely offer more safe and secure opportunities. By reinforcing the importance of alternative support programs, regardless of Manila’s orientation, Washington can alter the conversation with regional partners. Going another step, the US would be well-served to use the Duterte Administration’s cavalier actions to encourage regional states to deepen cooperation with the US. Reassuring regional actors of the US commitment is not only necessary but also within reach.
By not entering into a bidding competition with China over the Philippines, the Trump Administration will accept an immediate loss for potential long term gains. Having denied Rodrigo Duterte the luxury of prying concessions from Washington, the US can force the Philippines to work solely with China. Given Beijing’s historical and current tendency to treat bilateral relationships along tributary lines, there is a strong possibility its friendship with Manila will sour. Just as China pushed South Korea, Vietnam, and others toward the US, at some juncture the Philippines is likely to court Washington once more. This scenario would not be too different from what previously unfolded in Manila during the post-Cold War era. By gaining separation today, the US will be in a better position to negotiate with the Philippines from a position of strength tomorrow. Just as important as the bilateral relationship between the US and the Philippines, losing access to Manila is necessary for Washington and its partners to build stronger, more resilient bonds. Collectively, the community of like-minded nations in the Asia-Pacific region, led by the US, would greatly benefit from resetting relations with the Duterte Administration.