In one of the most shocking US foreign policy failures, and there have been many in the past 8 years, a long-time ally of the US, the Philippines, announced yesterday that it was seeking “separation” from the US and was looking for an alliance with Putin. As we reported yesterday, outspoken president Duterte, during his visit to Beijing for which Xi, announced his “separation” from the United States, declaring he had realigned with China as the two agreed to resolve their South China Sea dispute through talks.
“In this venue, your honours, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States,” Duterte told Chinese and Philippine business people, to applause, at a forum in the Great Hall of the People attended by Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli. “Both in military, not maybe social, but economics also. America has lost.”
“I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to (President Vladimir) Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world – China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way,” Duterte told his Beijing audience.
Needless to say, what appeared to be a terminal severing of relations with the US has put the Obama administration, which was demonstrably stubbed during its last visit to China, has been stumped by this dramatic redrawing of strategic alliances in Asia, and as Reuters points out, Obama now has virtually no options “and limited leverage as it struggles to craft a response to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s increasingly hostile rhetoric towards the United States and his warm embrace of China.”
As we had documented ever since Duterte’s ascent to the presidency, Washington had consisntely played down Duterte’s anti-American insults and broadsides, hoping they were just bluster. But now that the flamboyant new leader raised the stakes to a new level when he officially severed ties when he announced his “separation” from long-time ally the United States and realignment with Beijing and possibly even Moscow, America’s two main strategic rivals, the US is finally forced to take Duterte seriously.
Indeed, as Reuters adds, Duterte’s latest outburst, less than three weeks before the U.S. presidential election, “casts further doubt on the seven-decade U.S.-Philippine alliance and threatens to further undermine President Barack Obama’s faltering “pivot” to Asia as a counterbalance to China’s growing assertiveness.”
Mindful of Duterte’s volatile nature, the Obama administration has trod carefully so far, seeking to avoid provoking him even as it chides him over his deadly war on drugs, U.S. officials say.
One U.S. official, who did not want to be identified, said there had been an active internal debate in recent months on how far to go in criticizing Duterte’s government on human rights and that the measured tone adopted was not as strong as some aides would have liked.
Ironically, by directly taunting the CIA, as he did last week when he said “You want to oust me? You want to use the CIA? Go ahead,” the president may have removed the favorite US short-cut of dealing with intransigent rulers. The biggest threat to the US is the loss of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, reached under Duterte’s predecessor, which allows the US to rotate ships, aircraft, and personnel through five Philippines bases, an arrangement seen as crucial to projecting U.S. military power on China’s doorstep.
Meanwhile, every attempt by the U.S. to raise questions about Duterte’s campaign against drugs, in which more than 3,000 people have been killed since he took office in June, has only made him angrier: he has derided Obama as a “a son of bitch” and said he should “go to hell.”
“It doesn’t seem to help to say anything because the minute you say something, he just lets loose his barrage of obscenities,” said Murray Hiebert, deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I think for the U.S. to just blast him constantly is probably not very effective.”
To be sure, Washington remains hopeful There is a suspicion in Washington that Duterte could swing back to the United States – if he decides it suits his interests. “There is no question that Duterte is…trying to play the well-worn game of playing us off against the Chinese,” another U.S. official said, on condition of anonymity.
Following Duterte’s latest outburst on Thursday, State Department spox John Kirby said that the United States will seek an explanation from Duterte over his “separation” announcement, which he made during a visit to China. But he limited criticism to calling the remarks “baffling” and “inexplicably at odds” with close ties between Washington and Manila.
For once, Kirby may be on to something. As Reuters adds, Philippine officials sought on Friday to play down comments by President Rodrigo Duterte who announced his “separation” from the United States a day earlier, saying their country will maintain U.S. trade and economic ties.
Trade Minister Ramon Lopez sought to explain Duterte’s comments. “Let me clarify. The president did not talk about separation,” Lopez told CNN Philippines in Beijing, even though he quite explicitly did.
“In terms of economic (ties), we are not stopping trade, investment with America. The president specifically mentioned his desire to strengthen further the ties with China and the ASEAN region which we have been trading with for centuries,” he said, referring to the Association of South East Asian Nations. He said the Philippines was “breaking being too much dependent on one side”. “But we definitely won’t stop the trade and investment activities with the West, specifically the U.S.”
Well, it won’t as long as China doesn’t step in to fill the void that a full separation between the US and Philippines would entail.
It may also be too late.
As we reported yesterday, hundreds of left-wing demonstrators burned a replica of the U.S. flag at a rally in Manila on Friday as they called for an end to U.S. military agreements, while a splinter group of protesters stormed the US embassy. The United States, a former colonial power, has seen Manila as an important ally in its “rebalance” to Asia in the face of a rising China. The U.S. Embassy press attache in Manila, Molly Koscina, said Duterte’s statements were creating uncertainty.
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However, what is most amusing is watching the US response as it watches from the side what until recently was unthinkable: a strong ally publicly pivoting away from the US and toward its two biggest economic and geopolitical foes: China and Russia.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Washington intended to keep to its alliance commitments to the Philippines. “Obviously any relationship is one of mutuality and we will continue to discuss that with our Philippine counterparts,” he told reporters on a flight to Turkey.
The biggest winner? China, which now has the support of a key regional ally for its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea. China claims most of the waters through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year, and in 2012 it seized the disputed Scarborough Shoal and denied Philippine fishermen access to its fishing grounds. In a statement issued by China’s Xinhua news agency, China and the Philippines said it was important to address differences in the South China Sea “without resorting to the threat or use of force”. That now appears to be a done deal.