Philippine President’s Pro-China Move Causes Concern

A series of Chinese flags lined up beside one another.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

On a recent state visit to China, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made the surprising announcement that he would “separate” from the United States and align instead with China.

“I’m serving notice now to the Americans. I will maintain the military alliance, the RP-US pact which [sic] our countries signed in the early 50s. But I will establish new alliances for trade and commerce,” Duterte said.

In 1951, the United States and the Philippines signed a Mutual Defense Treaty, requiring each nation to support the other if attacked by a third party. Two years ago, Washington and Manila enacted an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which was designed to help the Philippine government stop Chinese vessels from entering a 200-nautical-mile exclusive ocean economic zone off the nation’s west coast.

Although the relationship with Beijing seems to be primarily economic in nature, some are worrying about the potential military implications as well. If the Philippines abandons its defense treaty with the U.S., it would “leave the Philippines open to territorial grabs by China without that defense agreement in place,” said Sean King, senior vice president of political consultancy Park Strategies.

Duterte, who has only been the nation’s president since May, might have some trouble getting his way, though. The Philippines is one of the most staunchly pro-American nations in the Pacific, with some 92 percent of Filipinos viewing the U.S. favorably and three-quarters placing “much trust” in the United States. Only 22 percent have the same level of trust in China, according to Manila-based research organization Social Weather Stations.

Earlier this year, during the administration of former Philippine president Benigno Aquino, the country went before the world court in The Hague to argue that China has no valid claims to natural resources—including oil, gas, and fish—in that 200-mile exclusion zone. The court agreed and also criticized China’s destruction of the reefs there.

That decision meant the Philippines could ask allies like the U.S. to help enforce the court’s ruling and help constrain China’s naval ambitions in the region. However, Duterte’s desire for “bilateral talks” with the Chinese government has harmed the United States’ negotiating power in the region.

“Almost single-handedly, Duterte’s undermined U.S. strategy against China,” said political analyst Richard Heydarian. “The Filipino leader has made it very difficult for Washington to mobilize regional diplomatic pressure on China based on the Hague verdict.”

Although Duterte says that his goal is primarily to open his nation to economic aid from China, he has also been talking with China and Russia about buying military supplies. About 75 percent of arms imports to the Philippines come from the U.S., but Duterte says he wants to buy arms “where they are cheap and where there are no strings attached and it is transparent.”

The Philippine legislature has to approve any decisions on military aid agreements with the U.S., so the odds are good that Duterte will have a fight on his hands if he decides he wants to scrap the treaties the nation already has in place.

“Definitely there will be opposition. Whether (lawmakers) can block it depends on the nature of the action taken by Duterte,” said Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at University of the Philippines. “Right now it’s all just public statements and controversial rhetoric.”

News of Duterte’s statement and his desire to end joint naval exercises with the U.S. has shaken up the Philippine economy. The peso dropped to its lowest level since 2009, and financial advisors like Matthew White have been warning their clients of a higher business risk there.

“There has not been any capital flight,” White said. “But before there (are) big investments, the business community and allies are going to want to see predictability because predictability lowers risk.”

Given that Duterte has a reputation for being mercurial and not consulting with his advisors before making public pronouncements of major policy shifts, there might not be a lot of predictability in the Philippines’ near-term future.

“I put those odds of 50-50 for a meaningful break in U.S. relations,” King said.

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