Recent Philipines President Rodrigo Duterte steps should be the cause of strong headache for U.S policymakers, putting into doubt strategy of pivot into Asia-Pacific. Philippines shift toward China makes a giant hole in U.S strategy of encirclement China, as Philippines were key strategic partner in the so called “First island chain” and U.S closest ally in South East Asia. Because of that, after November elections, new U.S administration will probably have to rethink its policies towards region.
Philippines are traditionally one of most important U.S partners in South East Asia and they are pilar of U.S pivot to Asia-Pacific. The countries are bound by Mutual Defense Treaty from 1951, guaranteeing mutual response for potential third party aggression and since then, their close relations were one of U.S hitches in region. U.S contribute large financial aid to Filipino military and economy, so considering Filipino weak military and poor spendings on it (although they are rising significantly in recent times), U.S is effectively the guarantor of Filipino external security. When we look at the map and recall U.S strategy of encirclement China, we see that Philippines play key strategic role in South East Asia geography, making encirclement tight and giving U.S military access to important military facilities on archipelago. The alliance is so significant for U.S strategy, that high executives in Obama’s administration used to call it as ironclad.
Since his presidential campaign Duterte was announcing his more friendly and conciliatory approach to bilateral relations with China. He stated that the case of South China Sea Arbitration, considering Filipino and Chinese claims over Scarborough Shoal, brought by Philippines at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in Hague, and then Court’s judgment, from 12 July, in favour of Philippines, should not be used as multilateral issue at the international forum. Instead Philippines should concentrate on bilateral dialogue with China. After being elected in May and after unleashing brutal anti-drug campaign, which caused over 3000 deaths of drug dealers and users, Duterte used rough rhetoric to distance itself from its western partners. He criticize them for, in his opinion, hypocrisy in accusing him of human rights abuses. Following, in October, he ordered suspension of joint military exercises with U.S military and called for withdrawal of U.S Special Forces from Minantao Island, proclaiming Philippines shift into more self-responsible defence stance. As I am writing this article, Rodrigo Duterte is on his 4-day visit to China, which already resulted in “full improvement of ties”. Before his visit he also stated that “It’s only China (that) can help us” and that he is looking to „boost traditional friendship with China and further bilateral trade and economic cooperation.”
The prospect of loosing an ally, which half a year ago was considered as one with whom U.S had the strongest ties in region and whose commitments to alliance were unquestionable, force U.S policymakers to put a question whether strategy of pivot to Asia-Pacific can still be effectively carried out in a form planned previously. Since Philippines were most credible ally in region, and now they will probably choose backing Chinese camp, by enhancing further economic and security relations with China, rather than cultivating ties with old ally, U.S policymakers have to ask themselves what will happen subsequently with other states affiliations in South East Asia region. What Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea will do seeing such a diminish of us physical capabilities, so possibility of aiding them in a situation of conflict, is less probable. New administration will have to rethink the base of its policy towards Asia-Pacific, adjusting it to more hostile and unpredictable environment than ever before.