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.
The militarization of the South China Sea is an issue that has been slowly gaining momentum in recent months. With global eyes centered on events in Syria for so long, the scope and significance of what is happening in the South China Sea is only now sinking in. The US has been warning China for years now about the ramifications that could result from their buildup of military bases on disputed islands in the South China Sea. ASEAN member nations are quite concerned about China’s intentions and the US has made diplomatic efforts to address and resolve the issue with China and receiving nothing in return. The buildup has continued. The US upped the ante with Show of Force demonstrations with limited numbers of warships and aircraft around some of the islands. China responded by moving surface-to-air missiles and fighters to the disputed area. Beijing simply has not gotten the message. The United States is resorting to an old, but reliable tool to try and persuade China that its actions in the South China Sea should be reconsidered, if not abandoned entirely: Gunboat Diplomacy.
At the present time, the USS. John C. Stennis and her escorts are operating in the South China Sea, flexing muscle in an area that is rapidly becoming China’s armed backyard. China continues to deny that it is militarizing the area in spite of evidence to the contrary. As the standoff between the two nations continues, the presence of Stennis and her strike group in the contested waters is a clear indication that the US making a determined effort to send a clear message through power projection. How it will be received remains to be seen.
PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) and US Navy forces are operating in close proximity at sea and in the air. Both sides have to exercise caution and be prudent while carrying out their respective missions. As we’ve seen with Turkey’s shoot down of a Russian fighter-bomber, it does not take much for a serious incident to come about. Considering that the Western Pacific is a powder keg already, it would not require much to unleash a conflagration across the whole region.