Before President Duterte’s “separation from America” declaration is reduced to a mere quibble over semantics, I want to call attention to two tough-minded US commentaries on the South China Sea dispute that sharply contrast with the oftentimes tender-minded Filipino view of PH-US relations.
The two commentaries are:
First, “The Philippines Just Blew Up Obama’s Asia Pivot,” Bloomberg, Oct. 21, 2016, by Eli Lake.
Lake argues that Duterte’s pivot to China blows up Obama’s pivot to Asia, and he lays the blame entirely on President Obama and his hemming-and-hawing foreign policy.
Second, “Is Scarborough Shoal Worth a War?” Human Events?,” May 24, 2016, by Patrick J. Buchanan.
Buchanan, presidential speechwriter of Richard Nixon, and one-time US presidential candidate, contends that America should not necessarily fight China if China begins to reclaim and militarize Scarborough Shoal.
Duterte’s pivot blows up Obama’s pivot
Lake, the Bloomberg columnist, posted his commentary soon after President Duterte’s separation remark in Beijing landed on the front pages and newscasts all over the world.
Lake’s commentary is striking for squarely laying the blame for the seeming collapse of the Philippine-US relationship on President Obama.
I quote his article at length below:
“Does anyone remember President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia? The plan was to focus diplomatic and military assets in East Asia to contain a rising China. It was one of the reasons Obama said he was shrinking the American footprint in the Middle East.
Well, the pivot is failing. On Thursday, the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, announced to an audience at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing a “separation” with the US. “America has lost now,” he said. “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….”
Duterte’s own government appears to have been kept out of the loop about this new alliance. On Friday, Duterte himself said he did not mean to imply that he would cut diplomatic ties with the US….
Regardless, this is a big story. The Philippines has been an important US ally since the beginning of the cold war. What’s more, the Obama administration has invested in the country as part of its pivot to Asia. In 2014 the two countries signed an enhanced defense cooperation agreement. When the Philippines brought a case against China at The Hague over China’s artificial islands in its territorial waters, the US supported the Philippines diplomatically.
In July, The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of the Philippines. This would have been an opportunity for the US to turn the screws on China. But instead the Obama White House encouraged China and the Philippines to resolve the matter themselves after the ruling of the international tribunal.
At the end of August, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that the US was not interested in “fanning the flames of conflict but rather trying to encourage the parties to resolve their disputes and claims through the legal process and through diplomacy.”
Duterte has now taken Kerry’s advice. After announcing his country’s new alignment with China, Duterte signed a series of trade agreements worth $13.5 billion, along with a promise to continue bilateral negotiations over the South China Sea.
Dan Blumenthal, the director of Asia studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told me Friday that the Obama administration had fumbled. “After the tribunal decision, our response was to tell Duterte to tamp down tensions and talk bilaterally with China, and there was no evidence of follow-up by us in terms of our own military exercises or diplomatic initiatives to enforce the findings of the tribunal,” he said. “There has been next to nothing on this. We still haven’t had a Freedom of Navigation mission that actually challenges the Chinese artificial islands.”….
The Obama administration acted as if international law would implement itself. But it never works that way. The rule-based system Obama endorses requires a great power to defend it.”
Scarborough not worth a war
I will give Buchanan’s piece on Scarborough Shoal equal treatment by quoting it at length here:
“If China begins to reclaim and militarize Scarborough Shoal, says Philippines President Benigno S. Aquino III, America must fight.
Should we back down, says Aquino, the United States will lose “its moral ascendancy, and also the confidence of one of its allies.”
And what is Scarborough Shoal?
A cluster of rocks and reefs, 123 miles west of Subic Bay, that sits astride the passageway out of the South China Sea into the Pacific, and is well within Manila’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
Beijing and Manila both claim Scarborough Shoal. But, in June 2013, Chinese ships swarmed and chased off a fleet of Filipino fishing boats and naval vessels. The Filipinos never came back.
And now that China has converted Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef into artificial islands with docks and air bases, Beijing seems about to do the same with Scarborough Shoal.
“Scarborough is a red line,” says Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International studies. To allow China to occupy and militarize the reef “would clearly change the balance of power.”
Really? But before concluding that we must fight to keep China from turning Scarborough Shoal into an island base, there are other considerations.
High among them is that the incoming president of the Philippines, starting June 30, is Rodrigo Duterte, no admirer of America, and a populist authoritarian thug who, as Mayor of Davao, presided over the extrajudicial killing of some 1,000 criminals during the 1990s….
In a clash with China, this character would be our ally.
Indeed, the rise of Duterte is yet another argument that, when Manila booted us out of Subic Bay at the Cold War’s end, we should have dissolved our mutual security pact….
What vital interest of ours is imperiled by who owns, or occupies, or militarizes Scarborough Shoal? If US rights of passage in the South China Sea are not impeded by Chinese planes or ships, why make Manila’s quarrel with China our quarrel?….
Should Beijing insanely decide to disrupt commercial traffic in that sea, the response is not to send a US carrier strike group to blast their artificial islands off the map.
Better that we impose a 10 percent tariff on Chinese-made goods, and threaten an embargo of all Chinese goods if they do not stand down. And call on our “allies” to join us in sanctions against China, rather than sit and hold our coat while we fight their wars.
This economic action would send China’s economy into a tailspin, and the cost to Americans would not be reckoned in the lives of our best and bravest.”
Japan’s dispute with China
For the record, Buchanan has also written that there is no vital US interest involved in the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu islands to China), which are bitterly disputed by China and Japan. If the two countries come to blows, the US should not necessarily fight for Japan, says Buchanan.
It will be interesting to see how President Duterte and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will tackle our respective territorial disputes with China, during Duterte’s three-day visit to Japan this week.
Abe and Duterte will hold a bilateral meeting and are expected to discuss bilateral and regional issues.
Abe, thinking of the Senkaku islands, will be keen to discuss with our President the sea dispute between the Philippines and China.
When the Philippines’ claim to the West Philippine Sea was affirmed by the arbitration tribunal, Japan backed the ruling and urged China to comply.
Meanwhile, the biggest military superpower on earth, America, has become just an observer of unfolding events.