When someone pointed out that President Duterte had just abrogated the bilateral Visiting Forces Agreement, Admiral Davidson conceded the point, but said it was up to ‘agile Australian diplomats’ among others to get it re-instated.
Addressing the Lowy Institute in Sydney on 13 February, 2020, Admiral Philip Davidson, head of the US Navy’s Indo-Pacific Command, included the Philippines among countries with which the US had defence agreements in the Pacific.
Predictably, Davidson accused China of using coercion, including military and diplomatic threats to bully regional states into accommodating Chinese interests. ‘Through excessive territorial claims, debt-trap diplomacy, violations of international agreements, theft of intellectual property, military intimidation and outright corruption, the Communist Party of China seeks to control the flow of trade, finance, communications, politics and the way of life throughout the Indo-Pacific’ he said. ‘This is a competition between a Beijing-centric order and a free and open Indo-Pacific, (where) the strong do what they will and the weak do what they must.’
Australians heard this message, together with the quote from Thucydides, last year from visiting University of Chicago academic John Mearsheimer, who calls this doctrine ‘offensive realism’. He told a Sydney audience that the US has no tolerance for peer competitors, and there can be only one hegemon in the Western hemisphere.
This is strong but predictable stuff. Davidson exaggerates both the Chinese threat and the certainty that the United States will use its military forces to defend its allies in the region. He no doubt gave the same message in Canberra, where he must have been met with furious agreement from anti-China hawks. His former colleague Admiral Harry Harris has made himself notorious in Seoul for adopting a similar tone. When you take Defence people out of uniform, you don’t necessarily produce diplomats.
Apart from talking up American resolution and military capability and ignoring China’s increasingly sophisticated capacity to contain it, Davidson gets his facts wrong on at least one count. In mentioning the 1999 US-Philippine Visiting Forces Agreement, he failed to say that President Duterte had just announced that he was about to abrogate it. When reminded of this fact by a member of the Lowy audience, Davidson airily said that it was up to Australian (among other) diplomats to negotiate it back to life, a fairly unrealistic assumption.
Davidson also failed to inform his Lowy audience of the flak that arose following Duterte’s announcement. The Philippines President was promptly told by US Defence Secretary Mark Esper, that he was ‘moving in the wrong direction’. President Trump added his own uninformed spin by saying that he didn’t mind – it would save the United States a lot of money. He added untruthfully that the United States had ‘literally single-handedly saved the Philippines from Islamic State’. It is a safe bet that Trump had not done his homework and was ignorant of the fact that the Philippines has been fighting the Moro National Liberation Front and similar groups in Mindanao for decades. In recent years Abu Sayaf has claimed to be Islamic State’s vanguard in Southeast Asia, reportedly funded from Saudi Arabia. The Maute terrorist group besieged Marawi city in Lanao del Sur in 2017, leading to deployment of US and Australian forces to support the Philippines authorities.
In response to Esper and Trump, a spokesman for Duterte, Salvador Panelo, said ‘to abrogate the Agreement is a move in the right direction that should have been done a long time ago. Reliance on another country for our own defences against the enemies of the State will ultimately weaken our defence mechanisms. We must stand on our own and stop being a parasite in protecting our independence and sovereignty.’ His spirited rebuttal is not new among Philippine officials, and should have been expected given the troubled history of Clark and Subic Bay, the two main former US bases in the Philippines. Both were closed in 1991/2, following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo and subsequent disagreement about rent the United States should pay for the bases.
Panelo’s sentiments no doubt find sympathy in other ASEAN states, which prefer a nuanced interpretation of China’s intentions, and are finding inventive ways to avoid military confrontation. These do not include hosting US or any other foreign military bases. The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (1976) echoes the UN Charter in rejecting the threat and use of force in settling disputes between member states, and is aimed at excluding great-power confrontation from the region. The US, China and Australia are all signatories.
Unfortunately, neither the government nor opposition in Canberra can be expected to mention the unpopularity of US bases to Admiral Davidson. The more cynically Trump views treaties and traditional allies, and the more he reveals his affinity for strongmen, the more unshakable remains Canberra’s perverse hope that the ANZUS alliance can be relied on and will not change. An opportunity to send the Admiral back to Hawaii with a contrary message has been missed.
Richard Broinowski, a retired Australian diplomat, served Australia in Manila in the 1970s.