After repeatedly declaring for weeks that he was weaning the country from its dependence on the US, President Rodrigo Duterte officially pivoted to China during his state visit last week, declaring that “only China can help us.” That, however, shouldn’t necessarily be bad news for the US.
For one, having the Philippines forge better relations with China will help ratchet down the tension in the South China Sea and bring about a stabilizing effect on the region. A more friendly relationship with China will also make it less tempting for Beijing to unilaterally annex more atolls in the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and turn it into artificial islands and fortified airstrips. All these developments should be a positive for the US.
In the realm of geopolitics, a closer relationship between the Manila and Beijing does not automatically mean that the country is abandoning its alliance with the US. As Duterte’s newly-appointed UN permanent representative (and our co-host in the “Executive Session” radio show in DZRH) Teddy Boy Locsin tweeted, the US should look beyond the harsh rhetoric, suggesting that Duterte is merely “drawing attention to the stagnancy of PH-US relations and is hinting at a change of pace.”
For instance, in spite his frequent anti-American rants, Duterte’s “separation” from the US have not translated into official executive action – and probably never will. In fact, upon returning from his China state visit early Saturday morning, Duterte clarified that Manila was not cutting diplomatic ties with Washington. He said by “separation” he meant charting another way in foreign policy. “In the past, and until I became President, we always followed what the US [gave as a cue],” he explained. By that, Duterte is looking to pursue not just an independent foreign policy but more accurately, a “Filipino First” policy where the foreign alliances should be equally advantageous to Filipinos.
Even China does not expect the Philippines to turn its back on the US.
In a commentary during Duterte’s state visit, the state-run Xinhua News Agency – the official mouthpiece and propaganda arm of the Chinese government – said: “The Chinese government never attempts to build up its ties with other countries on condition that these nations have to sacrifice their partnership with any third party.
“To be more specific, the most important thing Beijing seeks to get from a sound bilateral relationship with the Philippines is that the two sides can work together to strengthen their economic and trade cooperation on the basis of mutual benefit, as well as respect, for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
“It’s totally up to the Philippine authorities to decide how they are going to handle their relations with other parties, including the United States.”
The Philippines cozying up to China does not spell doom for US-PH relations. If it plays its cards right, the US can forge an even stronger bond with its longest ally in Asia. For Duterte, that simply means our 65-year old treaty alliance with the United States should be worth our while, both militarily and economically.
Unfortunately, that has not been the case ever since the Philippines ratified the Mutual Defense Treaty in August 1951.
While the treaty has allowed the US to project American military power in the Asia-Pacific region, and recently, to counterbalance China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea through its bases in the Philippines, our military has not really benefited from such arrangement.
After 65 years, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) remains one of the weakest armies in Southeast Asia, with virtually no capability of patrolling, let alone defending our territory. We are entirely dependent on the US for our external defense – which is exactly what the US wants.
If the military aid given by the US to the Philippines truly befits that of so-called important and loyal ally, we should by now have modern armed forces. But aside from the occasional grants of 50-year old Coast Guard vessels, vintage ambulances and Vietnam-era Huey helicopters, fighters and cargo planes, the US has not helped build up the country’s external defense capabilities.
In fact, based on the US State Government 2013-2015 Foreign Assistance report, two countries cornered 75 percent of the $59-billion foreign military aid given out by the American government in 2014 alone: Israel (in the Middle East region) with $3.1-billion and Egypt (in the African region) with $1.3-billion.
The biggest US foreign military funding in Asia was given to Pakistan, which got $280-million. Although the Philippines is supposedly the cornerstone of America’s “pivot to Asia,” with the US enjoying the privilege of rotating ships, aircraft, and personnel through five Philippines bases (thanks to EDCA), we only got a measly $50-million, or less than 1 percent in military aid.
Economically, our country has also paid a steep price for standing up to China at the behest of the US. For instance, countries participating in the “Belt and Road Initiative” – China’s version of the Marshall Plan (but with a $40-billion kitty funded by Beijing’s bountiful foreign reserves) aimed at creating a trade and infrastructure network along the ancient Silk Road – have all enjoyed a surge in trade and investment activities.
While Beijing showered largesse around the rest of the region – China is the top investor in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, with its investment in Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia significantly increasing in recent years – little Chinese investment has come to the Philippines.
There is a silver lining for the US, though. Duterte has already hinted that US-PH relations are not beyond salvaging, saying that “cutting diplomatic ties with the US would not be according to the interest of Filipinos.” The question is: Are the Americans prepared to renegotiate the terms of their country’s alliance to the satisfaction of Duterte?