Following President Duterte’s recent trips to China and Japan he has continued to play his hand in what has become a high stakes poker game with the US and China attracting a growing number of interested onlookers. Despite the twists in his game, which have often been interpreted as wobbles or even backflips by many foreign observers, Duterte has kept his cards close to his chest and tried to stay on course to rebalance The Philippines’ relationship with the US and China. An axiom for understanding the Philippines domestic scene has always been “ thanks to a free and hyperactive media there are no secrets but the truth is always extremely difficult to determine”. That is certainly in play again now!
Duterte’s policy goals have been driven by a combination of factors:.
- an assumption that the Philippines would be the most adversely affected by any military confrontation in the South China Sea.
- equally, the US military capacity and will in the region over the longer term is increasingly doubtful.
- therefore the only realistic way to regain Philippine fishing access to the contested area and explore the prospects of co-development of undersea resources is to reopen direct negotiations with the Chinese.
He played his China card on the recent visit to Beijing bringing home an impressive basket of aid, trade and investment offers from the Chinese which overall received wide support in the Philippines. Although some Chinese leaks hinted that a deal had been struck on fishing, he came back empty handed. But it was agreed that the direct negotiations which the Chinese had called off when the previous President had commenced legal charges against China would be resumed.
It soon emerged, unsurprisingly, that the Chinese were being sticklers on the wording of any agreement. They wanted to include the words “allow” or “grant” on access which would have acknowledged Chinese ownership of the waters. At the same time the Philippines government was assuring the relevant communities that they could soon resume fishing in the contested areas.
The government has now reported that Chinese ships have departed the Scarborough Shoals several days ago and the Philippine fishermen can now proceed back there. Of course, the permanency of such a fix has to be tested and then covered by compromise wording in any agreement. Even though it would still leave China an open hand to reverse the practice, Duterte can probably claim it as a success. No doubt the Chinese were also hanging back a little to see how Duterte was going to respond to the heavy pressure he was receiving simultaneously from the US.
In playing his US card, Duterte had not covered himself with glory by some of the crude and intemperate words he had used in response to US criticism of his violent anti-drugs campaign. Exacerbated by some of the heavy handed US response to these remarks the dialogue quickly became personalised. Threatening Duterte about what the Philippines stood to lose out of any separation with the US only served once again to play up the “dependency” card from the US. This was not very smart as the “dependency” issue in the Philippines ( as it played out in the heated debates over the withdrawal of US bases years ago) cuts both ways – fuelling latent anti-US feelings for the colonial and post-colonial treatment. And played right into Duterte’s hands by allowing him to renew (especially for the Chinese) his commitment to the longer term removal of US forces now in the Philippines and thus further alarm the US!
He also quickly denied suggestions that he had talked of “separation” from the US in his statements in China. He sought to explain that what he was looking for was more independence from the US in foreign policy not “severance” of ties. Understandably this then led to the US sending a very senior State Department official to Manila to seek urgent clarifications on what all this meant for the alliance. After meetings with the Philippine Foreign Secretary the official acknowledged that there was much more discussion needed. He then added that there were concerns from “other governments” , the Philippine business community and the large Filipino community in the US about the direction in which Duterte was headed – as well as a play on the dependency card again. No doubt the rapturous reception Duterte received from the large Filipino community on his arrival in Tokyo was designed to respond also.
That served to anger Duterte, by now in Japan. He announced in much more detail his thoughts about the US military presence in the Philippines and in a way to cause even more alarm in Washington (and delight in China!). In particular he expressed his displeasure with the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) of 2014 under the terms of which the US was allowed to establish a presence in 5 locations in the Philippines. Seen by many as a “build-back” of the previous US bases, this highly controversial agreement was only confirmed by the Supreme Court earlier this year.
The more that this US card is played out in public the less likely it will be for Duterte to engage with the US in the quiet way he has done so far with the Chinese. And the more that the US continues its public threats the more likely bilateral arrangements will deteriorate – especially if the criticisms are made at official or military levels. There is now talk of a possible meeting with President Obama around the Peru APEC.
While this spat continues there are clear signs of it having wider implications for ASEAN and the whole South China Sea issue – and even a gamebreaker for the US pivot/rebalancing strategy. The Malaysian Prime Minister is off to China this week reportedly keen to follow up some of the Duterte lines – having been bailed out by the Chinese over his controversial $US1 billion debt. There have also been signs of a growing relationship between China and the Thai military and President Xi has recently been in Cambodia. It was noteworthy how cautiously Prime Minister Abe handled the Duterte visit. The wording in their joint statement talked generally of the value of alliances and relationships but excluded any specific reference to the US: Philippines alliance.
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.