The victory of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr in Monday’s presidential election is official. The era of his father was one marked by immense greed and brutality that left a permanent scar on the soul of the Philippines. As the son and namesake of the former dictator, Bongbong’s rise to the presidency was made possible by a combination of prestige held from being the new face of the nation’s former ruling family, and the organization of the Duterte political machine. Bongbong’s running mate was Sara Duterte, daughter of the soon to be outgoing president. With the Philippines now poised to begin a new era, questions about the nation’s future relations with China and the United States have become more significant.
Marcos seems to want friendlier ties with China, but not at the expense of ceding sovereign territory. During the campaign, Bongbong bragged of having friends in Beijing and spoke of working towards a bilateral agreement with China to settle differences between Manila and Beijing. “If you let the US come in, you make China your enemy,” Marcos said during the campaign. “I think we can come to an agreement (with China). As a matter of fact, people from the Chinese embassy are my friends. We have been talking about that.” He is also eager to attract investors from China to help finance a massive national infrastructure plan.
Marcos is said to hold some personal issues with the United States. Understandable, given the manner in which the US government handled the aftermath of the elder Marcos’ departure from power. However, the current geopolitical situation in the Western Pacific has made relations with the US exceedingly important. The same holds true for the US-Philippines defense relationship. Marcos will seek to maintain the national interests of his country as a priority, even in the face of US-China power politics and competition in the region.
It will be a pretty neat trick if he can pull it off.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is loudly warning China to keep its distance from an island in the South China Sea that is considered by Manila to be an official municipality of the Philippines. Thitu Island has been occupied by the Philippines since 1970. It is the second largest of the non-artificial islands in the Spratly chain, and has long been envied by China. Duterte has threatened to send his military troops on a ‘suicide mission’ if Chinese pressure around the island does not ease, or if Beijing makes a move to occupy it.
According to the Philippine military, hundreds of Chinese vessels from fishing boats, to Coast Guard cutters have swarmed the island. Yesterday the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs released a statement calling the presence of the Chinese ships a ‘clear violation of Philippine sovereignty.’ China’s maritime presence around Thitu Island has been consistent.
Despite the warning, Duterte has maintained a friendly tone towards China. In the same campaign speech where he spoke of the Thitu Island situation, the president stated his belief that China ‘just wants to be friends with us.’ In a sharp contrast to Duterte’s words, his military chiefs are growing more concerned with Chinese moves in the South China Sea. Duterte’s desire to curry favor from the United States and China simultaneously continues, and he remains either unconcerned with, or oblivious to the blowback his ‘on again-off again’ stance with China is creating.
The South China Sea has become alarmingly tense lately with the violation of the Median Line of the Taiwan Strait, and continuing US-led Freedom of Navigation exercises. In an alarmingly dangerous world, it will take little for a major conflict to brew up. The Thitu Island situation acts as the latest potential flashpoint in a region already filled with them.
Since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in Manila relations between the Philippines and China have improved considerably, while the PI’s relations with the United States have deteriorated to an extent. Duterte appears eager to move his nation out from beneath the shadow of the US and set it on a more independent course. Thursday’s remarks by the Philippine defense secretary are an example of this. Delfin Lorenzana said it is unlikely that the Philippines will allow the US to use his country as a springboard for freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea. He pointed out that the US has numerous bases in the region that its ships and aircraft can use.
Under Beningo Aquino III’s presidency, some US aircraft and warships stopped in the Philippines on their way to patrols in the South China Sea. Lorenzana also said that President Duterte will probably not allow that to continue in order to “to avoid any provocative actions that can escalate tensions in the South China Sea. It’s unlikely.”
This change in policy comes on the heels of Duterte proposing a marine sanctuary and no-fishing zone be placed in the middle of the contested Scarborough Shoal last month. He told the media that he planned to sign an executive order declaring the zone and had discussed the matter with his ‘counterpart from China.’ Should Duterte issue the executive order it would reassert Philippine sovereignty over that area. A move like that will undoubtedly cause friction with China and puts Thursday’s comments by Lorenzana into a more coherent context perhaps. Removal of material support for US freedom of navigation exercises in exchange for China’s acceptance of the proposed Scarborough Shoal sanctuary.
Regardless of intentions and actions, it is clear that Duterte is playing a very shrewd game of geopolitical poker. His hand is nowhere near as strong as he would like. Much to his chagrin, the Philippines are not a major power in the South China Sea dispute. Manila has neither the political or military capital to influence the intentions and actions of the US and China in the region. Cozying up to China will bring short term benefits. However, China will act when it ready to act and in a manner that benefits its own national interests first and foremost. When that happens, Duterte will have minimal influence over the situation. His only viable option will be to tacitly approve of whatever plans Beijing has in mind. The same can be said for his stance with the United States.
To put it another way, Duterte is punching above his weight and if he is not wary, the US will not be there to administer a standing eight count if needed.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial comments in Beijing last week have cast clouds of anxiety and uncertainty across the globe. Diplomats, government officials and analysts from Washington DC to Manila are attempting to decode the meaning behind Duterte’s proclamation that the Philippines would be severing its military and economic relationship with the United States and pursue friendly ties with Beijing. In the aftermath of the trip, Philippine government officials appeared to be taken aback by the comments as well and began damage control and attempts to clarify. Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said that Duterte was reiterating his wish for a foreign policy independent of Washington’s meddling and influence. Another cabinet official stressed that the Mutual Defense Treaty would not be abrogated and that the Philippines still consider the United States an ally.
Washington’s reaction to Duterte’s words has been to seek clarification from Manila about its intentions and the future of the US-Philippine relationship. On the surface Washington is projecting an air of calm as diplomats from the State Department arrive in Manila for talks with their Filipino counterparts. While this goes on, the White House is attempting to assure an increasingly anxious world that its relationship with the Philippines will continue and any attempts by Duterte to realign his country with China and Russia will not come at the expense of the United States. The Obama administration will have a short period of time to determine what Duterte’s real intentions are and begin formulating a response. Once the transition period begins after Election Day in the US, the problem will shift to the incoming administration.
The next administration in Washington is going to have to face the matter head on. The situation in the South China Sea could look radically different by January 20th, 2017 and the Asian Pivot, once the centerpiece of the Obama foreign policy, might be a shattered wreck.
If the US-Philippines relationship were a marriage, this would be the day when the Philippines officially filed the divorce papers. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has taken a step that few observers believed would come. In the middle of an official state visit to China, Duterte announced that he is ‘separating’ from the United States and embracing China as the Philippines newest and most powerful friend in the world. “Your honors, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States … both in military, but also economics,’’ Duterte stated during a forum held in the Great Hall of the People. “I will be dependent on you.”
During Duterte’s visit agreements were signed for $13 billion in trade deals between China and the Philippines. Whether or not this pivot is genuine and sincere or an episode of bombastic grandstanding by Duterte remains to be seen. Washington will most likely adopt a wait-and-see attitude and declare that ‘all is well’ as the aftermath of today’s announcement plays out.
If Duterte’s words were genuine and his country is about to reject the United States and embrace China then Beijing has won a major diplomatic victory in the South China Sea and placed the United States in an unenviable position. Washington has little leverage and few options available as it comes to terms with what took place in Beijing. At the very least it severely undermines the Obama administration’s Pivot to Asia which has faltered more than once already. On the other end of the spectrum, if Duterte’s announcement becomes reality the US-Philippine alliance might be over permanently.
We will discuss this topic more on Monday or Tuesday.