Is Rody ready for a face-off with US?
President-elect Rodrigo Duterte’s avowed independent tack in dealing with China over the issue of the South China Sea should be preconditioned on the immediate review of the Philippines’ treaty commitments. Both policy options are interwoven: An independent foreign policy will be meaningless without untying the knot that binds the country to a client relationship with the United States.
Under outgoing President Aquino, the Philippines’ treaty commitments have deepened as America gears for tough actions to counter China’s militarization of the South China Sea. Expecting a decision by the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration that may deny China’s sovereign claim over a broad swath of the sea, America is planning moves to bind China to the ruling that may include sanctions.
If this happens, the Philippines as a key ally and a regional hub of US forward-deployed forces, logistics, and maritime operations has to cooperate. As a result, Duterte’s plan to take a pragmatic dispute resolution with China will be affected.
Last March—or two years after the signing of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca)—the Philippines agreed to the stationing of US forces and warplanes in five military bases, including Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan fronting the South China Sea. These are aside from the harbors and naval facilities now being used by the US Navy.
The Philippines is also America’s key operations center in the new, US-led Maritime Security Initiative (MSI). Funded to the tune of $425 million, the MSI will involve the Philippines and four other claimant states (Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand) in a “common operating picture” for intelligence, surveillance and radar, along with joint maritime operations to protect freedom of navigation against Chinese assertiveness. As a start, the Philippines’ National Coast Watch Center will conduct surveillance and patrol operations in the South China Sea.
Under Mr. Aquino, treaty commitments and defense cooperation—from the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty to the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and Edca—have cemented the Philippines as a key platform of US military power in the region. This makes it a strategic player in the US alliance system that links Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Australia with military cooperation involving some Southeast Asian states. The Philippines has extended the VFA to Australia, and new defense partnerships have been opened with Japan and Vietnam.
From now until 2020, expect America to complete the prepositioning in Asia of 60 percent of all its global air and naval forces. Thousands of combat troops, along with warships and warplanes, will be using the Philippines for proactive operations in the South China Sea.
The noose of the US-led military infrastructure directed at China is tightening as tensions rise in the South China Sea. In Singapore last June 5, People’s Liberation Army deputy chief Adm. Sun Jianguo described as provocative US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s threat of undefined actions against China. Carter was reacting to reports of a Chinese plan to build an outpost on Scarborough Shoal. US naval and air patrols near China-claimed reefs are an exercise of “military muscle” to force China to “accept” the UN tribunal’s ruling, Sun said, adding: “We do not make trouble, but we have no fear of trouble.”
Duterte has pledged a foreign policy free of America and a new relationship with China to promote the Philippine interests. The marching orders of incoming Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. are to reopen bilateral talks with China to settle the maritime feud once it ignores the UN tribunal’s decision. But Yasay also said treaties with the United States will be honored subject to future renegotiation.
These antithetical approaches to China and America need to be harmonized in a new foreign policy. Duterte faces a catch-22 situation: talking to China while treaty commitments push him into a showdown with it once America uses the alliance system and coercive measures to compel compliance with a UN decision that may be unfavorable to China. Duterte may need to calibrate as to whether to work with America by taking tough actions against China. But can he stop the Americans from using military facilities in the Philippines when push comes to shove?
This early, a group identified with former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario is urging Duterte to use the Edca as a leverage against China in resolving the maritime dispute. It was intended to abort bilateral talks with China since the latter will not deal with a country brandishing a dagger. Duterte is hemmed in between defending US primacy in Asia and negotiating a settlement of the maritime dispute without giving up his country’s territorial rights.
Complex as it is, this is an opportunity for Duterte to start navigating an independent course in dealing with China without being bound by an alliance that limits options. Similarly, the United States is bound by a policy of taking no sides in the territorial dispute, more so if bilateral talks are ongoing.
The outcome of future talks with China which may focus on a new economic partnership, as earlier envisioned by Duterte, and, again, without dropping the Philippines’ territorial rights, may be too early to predict.
Mustering political will should be the first step of a contentious process of renegotiating the alliance system with America, toward a new chapter of relations between equals.
Bobby M. Tuazon teaches at the University of the Philippines and is CenPEG’s director for policy studies.