ON the front page of our newspaper yesterday, the country congratulated itself on President Rodrigo Duterte’s being invited to visit Donald Trump’s White House later this year, while one of our own columnists congratulated the country on “no longer being the US lackey” in Asia.
Those are seemingly contradictory points of view, but they actually were not; both noted that the “North Korea issue” would be part of the conversation, and the implication was that Duterte would serve as a moderating voice in the growing tension between the US and China, which is what Trump’s belligerent posturing toward North Korea is really all about.
Unfortunately, the assumption that Duterte will somehow avoid becoming a tool of the American President’s foolish policy is based entirely on wishful thinking, and not any shred of evidence of Duterte’s “independent” foreign policy, because there hasn’t been any yet. China has made it clear it doesn’t intend to allow it, and Duterte has obliged by backing off on the long-standing maritime territory dispute. Now he’s about to take the final step to put the Philippines squarely in the middle of a potential violent conflict by traveling to Washington, where Trump fully intends to draft him to the US side.
In a report by CNN on Monday morning, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was quoted as saying, “…the issues facing us developing out of North Korea are so serious that we need cooperation at some level with as many partners in the area as we can get to make sure we have our ducks in a row.
“If we don’t have all of our folks together, whether they’re good folks, bad folks, people that we wish would do better in their country, doesn’t matter,” Priebus said. “We have got to be on the same page.”
No matter how enamored people here in the Philippines are of their colorful President, that “page” is not going to be one they imagine Duterte will be taking to Washington, because the only page Duterte uses is the same one out of the standard third-world political handbook used by all Filipino leaders—assert Philippine sovereign independence right up to the point that handshakes or signatures need to be exchanged, then placidly assume the client country role for the sake of pledges of investment, increased imports, development aid, tourist visitors, or jobs for Filipino workers. This time, it has put the country at serious risk.
If Trump had any sense or worthwhile advisers, he would have realized that the saber-rattling of North Korea was a typical play every time the US administration changes; the ruling class in North Korea needs the international attention to keep its power structure intact, and Trump, not being the brightest bulb in the chandelier, took the bait. And so now, according to his chief of staff, “The issue on the table is North Korea, and there is nothing right now facing this country and facing the region that is a bigger threat than what’s happening in North Korea.”
It is not very likely that sort of with-us-or-against-us policy posture has any room for Duterte’s play-both-ends-against-the-middle strategy, which means if he persists, the Philippines is going to become the target of Trump’s irrational ire. On the other hand, if Duterte sides with the US, he risks irking China, and potentially making the Philippines a handy target for North Korea. If things deteriorate to the point that Kim Jong-Un decides to take an actual shot at someone (assuming his engineers can get a rocket to fly properly), it won’t be South Korea, or Japan, or the US or any of its assets—it will be a place that is probably not important enough to unleash the full might of the US arsenal in response, and the Philippines fits that role perfectly.
The wider conflict that Trump is trying to provoke against China is more likely to cause the Philippines serious harm much sooner, however. China and the US will not get into an armed conflict, but are almost certainly headed for an economic war, and there is no way the Philippines can avoid losses in that case. If the country is at odds with China, the Philippines will suddenly find billions in investment “pledges” disappear, and can lose a big export market and watch its tourism market evaporate. Conversely, if the Philippines is perceived as not being “on the same page” with the US, local financial markets will take a serious hit, as will the direct welfare of a couple of million Filipino families when wage-remitting workers in the US come under the scrutiny of Trump’s unfriendly immigration policies.
To be fair to Duterte, the trap may have been unavoidable. But there’s a big difference between getting one’s foot caught in it and still having three limbs free to fight, and blindly sticking one’s head in it, which is what he seems to have done.