Beneath his colorful rhetoric, President Duterte is speaking to a deadly serious national purpose. He’s trying to come to terms with China’s rising power; and he is charting a truly pivotal strategy to keep the Philippine state viable in an increasingly contentious Asia Pacific.
At Independence, our foreign-policy makers had set their course—as then-President Manuel A. Roxas phrased it—“in the glistening wake of America.” By and large, we’ve kept to that course during these last 70 years.
In contrast, Mr Duterte’s key foreign-policy assumption seems to be that we Filipinos cannot count on Washington’s guarantees in the succession of security crises an anti-Beijing line on the China Sea is liable to bring down on our country.
In his view, the future seems to lie in creating in our home region a multilateral power balance that allows the second-rank states (that now include Japan) some wiggle room.
Meanwhile, the better part of valor is for us to keep out of the way of the great powers seemingly headed toward a confrontation.
Not only must we remain mindful of the Malay saying that when elephants fight, it is the mouse deer that gets crushed. For the alert and agile, there are also opportunities in playing off the great powers, one against the other.
Initially, Mr. Duterte apparently looks to revisiting agreements with the US that give its military continuing access to Philippine bases two dozen years after our Senate abrogated the post-colonial treaty allowing them to do so.
To Beijing, Mr Duterte has offered two-way talks to settle rival claims to strategic South China Sea islets, in place of the Asean-China negotiations the Aquino Administration had insisted on.
Breaching the wall
Beijing has rewarded Mr. Dutere’s “pivot” with a state visit—and $24 billion in potential investments and financing deals. (In addition, China’s coast guard has stopped shooing away our fishermen from Scarborough Shoal, or Bajo de Masinloc or Panatag Shoal, off Zambales.)
But Washington is understandably aghast—since Manila’s threatened defection will breach beyond repair the “Great Wall” of security alliances the Americans are building to “contain” Chinese power.
In its every dealing with Manila, Washington’s overriding concern has always been to ensure its continuing access to Philippine bases—as staging areas for projecting US power in coastal East Asia, the South China Sea and the West Pacific.
During this past generation, China’s economy has been growing faster than the world had thought possible. Now only the United States is ahead in GDP terms—and even that may change in the next 10 years. By every measure, China’s strategic reach is growing.
Not only is Beijing cutting deals worldwide—to tie down raw-material sources, exploit investment opportunities and show off its “soft power.”
In the sciences, Chinese technologists have just set up the world’s largest radio telescope, to raise their country to the forefront of international astrophysics and space exploration.
Beijing also offers the Chinese economy’s fusion of the market and strong government as the winning development model for the new countries.
Under Xi Jinping, Beijing seeks to restore a “rejuvenated” China to what it sees as its “rightful” place in East Asia. President Xi seems to have gathered more power into his hands than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping—the makers of modern China.
Addressing his legislature in July, Xi spoke frankly of China’s great-power ambitions and his own hopes of China’s national greatness and military effectiveness.
Xi envisions Beijing’s taking an “active role in global governance” and contributing “Chinese wisdom to perfecting such a system.”
China’s relations with the United States, President Xi wants reset on the basis of “strategic reassurance”; respect for “core interests”; and agreed-on “spheres of influence.” And Xi does not equivocate in setting out Beijing’s claim to virtually all of the China Sea—a claim that ultimately incorporates the first group of islands ringing East Asia’s great inland sea into China’s security, economic and cultural orbit.
For Washington, its military presence on China’s periphery may merely carry on the strategy of “forward defense” it has followed in the Asia Pacific since the 1890s.
But, viewed from Beijing, the ring of US bases, alliances and friendships—running from South Korea and Japan down to Okinawa, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore; eastward to Guam, and southward to Australia—does form what the American journalist Robert D. Kaplan has called a “Great Wall in reverse.”
And this containing wall is denying China not just an “ocean frontage” on the China Sea. It is denying China access to the Pacific, the world ocean and, ultimately, great-power rank.
China’s startling rise has raised yet again what John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago calls “the tragedy of great power politics.”
Mearsheimer notes that there is no central authority to whom great powers are responsible. In dealing with one another, their sole motive is self-interest. And it is not just their statesmen’s ambitions but the anarchic structure of the state system that set great powers one against another.
Is a confrontation between China and the United States unavoidable? Mearsheimer—citing historical precedents dating back to Athens and Sparta—is pessimistic.
But one of his colleagues has a more nuanced view.
You Ji of the Australian National University in Canberra, an ethnic Chinese, says Beijing’s strategists seem to believe the “threat of action may be the best form of war prevention at the Chinese military’s current stage of development.”
What will American recognition of China as a great power entail? Initially, President Xi expects US recognition of China’s rise to great-power status to result in Washington’s acknowledging the legitimacy of Beijing’s security, territorial and economic interests in the China Sea. It would mean Washington’s cession of “greater strategic space” to the Chinese military.
This recognition President Obama has refused steadfastly to grant. Protracted and intense US-China “shirt-sleeve Summits” starting in June 2014 faded away on this issue.
But at least one American authority, the Sinologist Orville Schell, has declared his own belief that the US should acknowledge China’s entitlement to “some kind of sphere of influence” in the South China Sea.
Maintaining the balance
Given this impasse, what are the East Asia middle-rank states to do? For them, the imperative is to keep the strategic balance and not to be drawn irrevocably into any single great power’s sphere of influence.
Will a multilateral power balance serve the second-rank states better? Recent diplomatic initiatives suggest that, individually, the East Asian capitals are all working toward a looser and more equal power balance in the region that will give them all more freedom of maneuver.
Kuala Lumpur’s Najib Razak followed Mr. Duterte’s path to Beijing. Jakarta and Canberra plan their own joint patrols in the South China Sea.
In Beijing-Washington relations, the experts see the dangerous transition as occurring in the early 2020s. As China’s economic—military—and diplomatic potential matures, America will find it more and more difficult to keep the regional balance favorable to its interests.