The United States and The Philippines: Messy divorce or just a tiff?

As the Obama Administration enters its final months, its signature foreign policy initiative – the “rebalance” to Asia – is in serious jeopardy, from two sources.

The first is the prospect that the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement – heralded as a centerpiece of the rebalance and of American economic engagement with Asia – will not be ratified by Congress during the lame duck session and may languish for several years. China would make hay with its own regional economic blueprint in the meantime. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said bluntly that the region sees TPP as a test of U.S. credibility.

{mosads}The second is the risk of a rupture in the longstanding U.S.-Philippines alliance under the unpredictable new populist leader, President Rodrigo Duterte, and that The Philippines may realign with China, America’s increasingly assertive strategic competitor in the Western Pacific.

After hearing a heavenly voice Duterte has reportedly promised to stop cursing. But he shows few signs of dialing down his anti-American rhetoric or ending his high-profile dalliance with China.

Nettled by relatively mild U.S. government criticism of his violent crackdown on drug crime, Duterte has abused the U.S. President, called for the removal of American military trainers from the southern island of Mindanao, and ended combined maritime patrols. On his first visit to China he announced The Philippines’ “separation” from the United States (returning with funding and investment pledges claimed to total $24 billion). He has threatened to unwind the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that provides U.S. military forces with access to strategic air and naval facilities in The Philippines, and just last week he said he wanted all U.S. military personnel to leave the country in the next two years. In coming weeks he may move to cancel longstanding military exercises with the United States.

So far Beijing has handled this windfall cleverly, courting Duterte, supporting his anti-crime campaign, and refraining for now from island-building activity at Scarborough Shoal, the strategically located reef in the Spratly Islands that China has controlled since 2012. China has used its rapprochement with The Philippines to deflect attention from a major legal defeat in July, when an international tribunal ruled strongly against it. Media reports suggest a deal may have been struck to allow Philippines fishing vessels to return to Scarborough Shoal (an important domestic political priority for Duterte), and there may have been some reduction in the number of Chinese vessels patrolling the area. It remains unclear whether Filipino vessels will resume fishing there, however, and if so on what terms.

Duterte subsequently walked back his “separation” comments, and Philippines officials have scrambled to clarify or explain away other outbursts. Analysts point out that to date The Philippines has not moved formally to implement many of the steps announced by Duterte. The military are only too aware of their limited capabilities and their dependence on America for training, equipment and back-up in extremis. The United States has been vital to The Philippines’ economy for a century as a source of investment and remittances as well as a trading partner. Development and people-to-people links are also strong. Filipinos remain overwhelmingly pro-American and strongly support the alliance. Together, these factors suggest Duterte may be constrained from following through, at least on his more radical pronouncements.

Counting on sanity prevailing, so far the Obama Administration has responded judiciously, expressing concern that Duterte’s rhetoric is creating uncertainty but emphasizing the United States’ commitment to the alliance and respect for its sovereignty – as well as American affection for The Philippines. Secretary of State Kerry has visited Manila to meet Duterte, and senior Asia official Danny Russel recently returned from talks with Philippines counterparts.

Nonetheless, there is no cause for complacency. The current trajectory of the U.S.-Philippines relationship is unsustainable: it will not be possible to insulate economic ties and defense cooperation indefinitely because ultimately American investors and defense planners alike require certainty. Over time Duterte’s antics can only erode trust and confidence in The Philippines as a dependable partner and the United States will have no choice but to start considering Plan B.

Moreover, the stakes extend well beyond U.S.-Philippines relations, for three key reasons. First, one major strength of the rebalance is its recognition of Southeast Asia’s increasing strategic importance; with the U.S.-Thailand alliance largely in abeyance following that country’s most recent military coup, The Philippines has been Washington’s most important treaty ally in Southeast Asia. Second, as tensions rise in the South China Sea, access to air and naval facilities in the north and west of the archipelago facilitates the United States’ ability to project military power into its contested waters. Losing that access would significantly complicate life for U.S. military planners and make it harder to maintain freedom of navigation through a vital international waterway that carries global trade worth $5 trillion annually. Third, American officials have to worry about the demonstration effect. If Beijing succeeds in peeling The Philippines away from the United States, other countries faced with a similar combination of intimidation and blandishments may also succumb, in a 21st-century version of the Vietnam-era “domino theory”. Cambodia and Laos have already moved into China’s orbit; there are worrying signs Malaysia may also be tilting towards Beijing.

So how should the United States respond?

Mindful of this regional dynamic, Washington needs to strike a careful balance between overreacting and pushing Duterte further into China’s arms and being seen to reward his behavior. Aside from reasserting its credibility in Asia by ratifying TPP, the United States should continue to highlight the breadth and mutual importance of the bilateral relationship, not just the alliance (important as it is). The advent of a new U.S. administration in January could provide an opportunity for a fresh start. The United States should continue working with other allies such as Japan and Australia to build The Philippines’ maritime security capacity and should privately encourage those governments to remind the Duterte Administration what is at stake for the region and of the importance they place on a strong U.S.-Philippines alliance. Finally, the United States should do what it can, despite the difficulties, to step up its cooperation with other existing and potential Southeast Asian strategic partners, building on recent progress with Singapore and Vietnam, and stepping up engagement with Malaysia and Indonesia. As Thailand prepares for a new king, the United States also needs to find a way to rekindle security ties with its other longstanding Southeast Asian ally. It will need old and new friends even more if the current tiff ends in a messy divorce.

Andrew Shearer is Senior Advisor on Asia Pacific security at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. He was previously national security advisor to Prime Ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott of Australia.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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