One of the less reported but more important stories of the past week or so has been Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte’s pivot toward China, as The Economist calls it. That newspaper asks, “What is Mr Duterte up to?“
And it answers its own question by telling us to: “Bear in mind that development and growth are his priority—one reason for his sky-high popularity in a country with an entrenched plutocracy lording it over legions of urban and rural poor. But development needs capital, and the Philippines has been excluded from recent Chinese largesse showered around the rest of the region. Relations suffered in 2012 after China dislodged the Philippine navy from the Scarborough Shoal, which is just over 200km from the Philippines proper, within its exclusive economic zone, and almost 900km from China. Filipino businesses have struggled in China, while little Chinese investment has come to the Philippines. The tribunal’s ruling only made matters worse: afterwards, China told even its tourists to stay away .. [and] … The Philippines had been plucky in standing up to China. But it has paid a price. Now, the goodies that China is dangling look irresistible. Mr Duterte wants lots of infrastructure, particularly railways. China is offering cheap loans. He wants the country to export more. China is offering to reopen its markets to Philippine fruit. He wants help with the war on drugs. A Chinese businessman is building a big rehab centre. And he wants Filipino fishermen to be able to return to their traditional fishing grounds around the Scarborough Shoal. China has told Philippine officials that it is open to an accommodation.“
But, The Economist concludes, hopefully, President Duterte’s pivot “is a reckless approach, but not necessarily a lasting one. For the time being, China wishes to draw the Philippines into its camp. That is why it has not yet attempted to build the kind of military facilities on Scarborough Shoal that it has constructed on other reefs in the South China Sea and that many Western analysts had assumed were imminent … [but] … China will have to offer more than fishing rights to make any deal acceptable to Filipinos. Even the China-loving Mr Duterte has talked about leaping onto a jet ski to defend the Philippines’ interests in person if need be. So the Chinese idea of a “package deal” in which Chinese sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal is acknowledged in return for fishing rights which Filipinos had anyway long enjoyed will be greeted as an insult back in the Philippines … [and, therefore] … America, in short, can be patient. The Philippines may yet return to its camp. If so, both sides will claim it never left.“
America (conservative) political scientist Walter Russel Mead, writing in The American Interest, suggests that there is plenty of blame to be laid for this. His article is headlined: “As Obama’s Clock Winds Down, Revisionist Powers Pounce … The Philippine pivot to China is just the latest consequence of Obama’s feckless foreign policy.” Dr Mead goes on: “As usual,” he says, “the Obama administration was caught off guard and flat-footed. John Kirby, the spokesman for the State Department, said the move was “inexplicably at odds” with the U.S.-Philippine relationship. “We are going to be seeking an explanation of exactly what the president meant when he talked about separation from us,” Kirby said. “It’s not clear to us exactly what that means and all its ramifications” … [and] … Kirby is right that the outlook in the Philippines is murky; lots of Filipino officials are as appalled by their president’s remarks as anybody in Foggy Bottom. [A point also made by The Economist] But what isn’t murky at all is that President Obama’s faltering foreign policy has taken another serious hit. It is hard to think of another American president whose foreign policy initiatives failed as badly or as widely as Obama’s. The reconciliation with the Sunni world? The reset with Russia? Stabilizing the Middle East by tilting toward Iran? The Libya invasion? The Syria abstention? The ‘pivot to Asia’ was supposed to be the centerpiece of Obama’s global strategy; instead the waning months of the Obama administration have seen an important U.S. ally pivot toward China in the most public and humiliating way possible.“
Walter Russel mead concludes that: “This isn’t just a painful and embarrassing time for President Obama; it is a dangerous time for world peace. Secretary Clinton is well aware of just how damaging the Filipino defection is in Asia; she helped develop the Obama administration’s Asia strategy and she knows that China’s challenge has just grown much more dangerous. She knows what a wreck the Middle East has become, and she is well aware that Obama will hand her a region that is in much worse shape than it was when Obama took office. She knows how Putin made a patsy and a laughingstock of Obama around the world, and she knows that Obama’s efforts to stabilize the Middle East by conciliating Iran have had just the opposite effect. She knows that even as Donald Trump’s poorly led, poorly conceived electoral campaign weakens, America’s enemies abroad are using every day of Obama’s tenure in office to weaken the foundations of America’s power around the world … [and] … We do not know what other plans our opponents have to take advantage of Obama’s shortcomings as the clock slowly runs down on his time in the White House. Putin clearly hoped that his interference could muddy the waters of the American presidential race; the Russians believe that Trump is if anything less capable than Obama, and that a Trump presidency would give Russia four more years to work at dismantling American power and the European Union. As Putin now contemplates the likely frustration of those hopes, he is likely to think harder about how he can use the time remaining on Obama’s watch to further weaken the United States and erode its alliance system … [therefore] … Should Secretary Clinton make it to the White House, her first and biggest job will be to stop and then reverse the deterioration in America’s global position that her predecessor permitted. She will have to convince both friends and foes that the President of the United States is no longer a punching bag, and that the United States of America is back on the stage. She will need, and she will deserve, the support of patriotic Americans in both political parties as she undertakes this necessary mission. President Obama’s mismanagement of foreign affairs is creating a genuine international emergency; the White House and Congress will have to work together to restore American prestige and stop the slide toward chaos and war.”
The Financial Times looks at the pivot in terms of President Duterte, himself, and his often rocky relationship with America: it explains both political and personal problems between the Philippines president and America, including an allegation that he was abused by an American priest/teacher, and these issues go all the back to the Vietnam war. “The president’s trip to Beijing this week,” The FT says, “underscored his strong feelings about the US. He dramatically announced his country’s “separation” from Washington and said it was “time to say goodbye” to the Philippines’ treaty ally and colonial occupier. A day later he backtracked, saying that the Philippines could not sever ties with the US but that the two countries’ foreign policies need not dovetail. His comments underlined the mercurial — and often emotional — nature of his leadership.“
The Financial Times concludes its analysis by say that, “Mr Duterte has nevertheless raised questions about the nation’s inevitable love-hate relationship with its former colonial power. The modern history of the Philippines, which was ruled by Spain for almost three centuries, is sometimes described as 300 years in the convent and 50 years in Hollywood … [and] … Some Filipinos say the US has had an outsize position in culture and the education system, leading it to be seen as the source of just about anything important. As one woman put it only half-jokingly: “We thought The Beatles were American”. Meanwhile, Spam — a brand of tinned precooked pork meat — introduced during the US era has become a national dish … [but] … Washington says Manila has not formally notified it of any policy changes. US businesses are for now more on alert than alarmed. But Mr Duterte’s rhetoric taps realms deeper than realpolitik — which adds a new unpredictability to this historic bilateral bond.“
Quite frankly, the problems between President Duterte and the USA are of little concern to Canada. The Philippines is very likely remain an important source of skilled, entrepreneurial immigrants: its “pivot” towards China will not change that. The Philippines is not, yet, a member of the TPP ~ a trade deal which is equally important as the troubled CETA and about which I have similar worries given that Justin Trudeau is prime minister and Chrystia Freeland is trade minister ~ but I fear that Canadians, politicians and officials, alike, have taken the Philippines for granted. That needs to change.
Prime Minister Trudeau might decide to lead, for a change, be leading a diplomatic and trade mission to the Philippines ~ it may be “lost” to America, it needn’t be “lost” to the West.