Foreign Minister Bishop’s not so gentle rebuke of President Duterte that the Philippines as a claimant state should pull its weight in the South China Sea eerily had all the elements of the earlier Australian approach to the acrimonious bilateral debate between Washington and Manila over the closure of the huge US bases in the Philippines. Much of which occurred in my 5 years as Ambassador there. Driven by our perceived Alliance obligations we were under instructions from Canberra to offer what assistance we could to the US in their debate with the Philippines on the grounds of regional security.
After six months in Manila it had become abundantly clear to me that very few Philippine leaders not only from the political scene but from across the community – including the powerful Catholic Church – wanted the bases to stay. And I reported so to Canberra. But also to the venerable Rich Armitage who was running the negotiations and who regularly asked me to meet when he was in town because he recognised that the Filipinos felt more comfortable levelling with us than with our American colleagues because of the overshadowing US colonial past. It was abundantly clear that US/ Philippine relations would be on much more solid ground once the bases and Philippine dependency on them had gone. Let’s not forget that at that stage and for some time later the US Navy depended on Filipinos “below decks” to keep their ships at sea – the only foreigners recruited.
And so in real regional security terms the more harmonious bilateral relationship betweenWashington and Manila which ensued was a definite plus.
With the containment of China and the so called US pivot the US has steadily sought to build back some of its military position in the Philippines. Again, that was welcomed by Canberra which seems never to have understood the depth and complexity of the US/Philippine relationship. All too often the Philippines has been written off as a near failed state so ridden by corruption etc but that is an argument for another day! Or now as Greg Sheridan posited the other day as a threat to regional stability by not singing from the US ( and Australian) hymn book.
As has been pointed out in this blog some time ago Duterte is a very tricky customer to deal with as I learned first hand as he was Mayor of Davao in my time there. But he is street smart and gets things done – even if by means we find abhorrent. And he is no Trump as sloppy media sometimes paint him. He has a real mandate with populism still running well for him. He also has some very capable technocrats in his Cabinet.
Probably even more important though is the fact that he has determined that the highest security priority for the Philippines are the several insurgencies which have so impaired development in the Philippines for so long – the communist NPA and the various Muslim groups including Abu Sayyaf.
On the former he got off to a quick start through his long time contact with his professor at the University of the Philippines and an exiled communist leader of over 20 years. Then came the appointment of several NPA or sympathisers to the Cabinet and the opening of negotiations in Europe. The balance here for Duterte is that the NPA/CPP’s major demand continues to be the end of any US military presence in the Philippines.
NPA/CPP influence steadily waned after the bases closure removed their main cause celebre but they have been quick to remind Duterte again lately that the US military influence remains a showstopper for them.
As for the Muslim insurgencies, Duterte has been claiming some Muslim blood in his heritage – something very little was ever spun back in Davao days ! Though Davao traditionally has not been regarded as part of Muslim Mindanao he knows just how important it will be to find some way to wind back the problems there – if not eliminate them totally. So again he was keen to see the complete rundown of US military presence there from the peak several years ago of hundreds to the last 50 now announced. It was probably no surprise then that a small number of foreign hostages were just released in Sulu by their captors – possibly as a quid pro quo even though ransom was probably also involved.
Of course, it remains to be seen how successful he might be in his strategy of resolving the insurgencies but objectively it is hard to argue with the priority he attaches to it for the future of the Philippines. And in regional security terms success here would be very beneficial – especially with Abu Sayyaf and their IS connection so well placed to cause trouble in the region and in Australia. After all their area of operations is about the same distance from Australia as Auckland is from Sydney!
All of this must influence the way Duterte wants to try to handle the South China Sea dispute and especially China. A number of factors are at play :
- the Philippines more than any know that any military confrontation would be catastrophic for them – especially if the US were using it as a base;
- it was not Duterte who launched the international arbitration case and he is keen to handle its outcome with extreme caution;
- the Philippines is more concerned about fishing rights and oil and gas potential in the disputed area than international navigation;
- the Philippines relationship with China is also longstanding and complex with local Chinese dominant in business – often camouflaged by non Chinese names.
So this has led Duterte to try a strategy of engagement with China as the way to quietening down the South China Sea issue. He seems to think that he has some chance of some compromise on the key issues of fishing and oil and gas and avoidance of military catastrophe if he can pull it off. The two key cards he might hope to play, would be first, the prevention of any US military buildup in the Philippines and second, more openings for new Chinese business interests in the Philippines in return for some form of joint or co-development of resources. Already there have been some signs of the Chinese offering to become involved in infrastructure projects. But only time will tell how successful he might be. Meanwhile gratuitous and paternalist commentary from outside will certainly be counter-productive.
Australia’s handling of this issue will also be watched very closely by the rest of ASEAN – and China of course. One of the major lessons in dealing with this region we seem to have forgotten from the Vietnam war is that what is the most important thing is not what ASEAN countries whisper to us in private on big issues like this but what they say or commit to in public. The last ASEAN meeting was a vintage case not in what they said in their communique but what they did not say! We would be deluding ourselves if we thought the ASEAN’s would publicly support our admonition of Duterte. Rather they will see the ‘Deputy Sheriff’ reemerging, even if they might also have some sympathy for what we say. We have fought so hard and for so long to erase ‘Deputy Sheriff’ memory!
Finally a quick word on Australian national interests I all of this. While we have legitimate concern over any impediment to international shipping presented by the Chinese “adventurism” we should not lose sight of the fact (as clearly established in a Defence study a few years ago) almost all our iron ore exports to North Asia and a lot more transit through the Sibutu Channel – a 12 mile wide deep channel between two occupied reefs in the extreme south of the Philippines and only a short distance from Sabah. I visited the area 20 years ago ( we were helping a small NGO there) but security was so bad that I could not visit the main town! It has since become an easy location for Abu Sayyaf in which to operate. Sibutu is a real choke point that we need to watch – and all of it is inside Philippines national waters.
As a senior diplomat in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Mack Williams spent nine years working on Indochina issues in Saigon, Canberra, Phnom Penh and Washington. He was Australian Ambassador in the Philippines for five years.