The meeting between the Prime Minister of Japan Abe Shinzō and the President of Philippines Rodrigo Duterte held on January 12th resulted in yet another wave of concerns in the discourse over the future of Philippines’ political actions.
Duterte’s political shift
Last five months, since the landslide victory of maverick Rodrigo Duterte in the presidential elections, Philippines experienced a dramatic transformation in its political course. The newly elected president entailed a political path startlingly divergent from the one adopted by his predecessors. On the international arena, he dissociated the Philippines from the US and engaged in the process of political rapprochement with China. In the course of the last decades, due to its strategic geopolitical situation, Philippines played a crucial role in the US reaching the role of a global hegemon. The Philippines enabled the US to project its power in the South-East Asian region.
Causes behind the political reorientation of Philippines
The most recent political reorientation inaugurated by President Duterte, derived from the reinterpretation of the changing regional geopolitics. Paradoxically, it is not the first time in the long history of a largely one-sided friendship, when Filipinos significantly questioned the alleged benefits coming out of the relationship with the ‘benevolent’ hegemon. Spain ceded the Archipelago to the US for $ 20 million in 1898, after the successful anti-Spanish uprising supported by the US. It is when Philippines became the first colony of the US. The colonial status of the country found reflection in the condescending treatment of the local population and its needs by the new coloniser. Such subjugation led to the transformation of the anti-Spanish inclinations into the anti-American sentiments. The animosities rose gradually, especially during the Vietnam War (when the US military bases in the Philippines served as the backbone of most of the operations in Vietnam), due to the notorious disorderly demeanour and misconduct of American troops. The relationship reached its tipping point in early 90’s, when the fierce opposition to American military presence, impelled Washington to withdraw its troops. However, in light of Beijing’s most recent adaptation of an ever more aggressive assertion of territorial claims over the Spratly Islands (Scarborough Shoal) and an implementation of the military operations nearby Filipino shores, ex-president Benigno Aquino III sought support and protection from the US (Times, 2016). Such endeavour, absolutely in line with American goals, led to an agreement, according to which Americans would hold permanent military presence in the Philippines across five bases, effectively enhancing American influence in the region (Times, 2016).
However, in less than five months after the finalisation of the accords, together with the victory of Duterte, the identification of the national priorities underwent profound alteration over again. The new President recognised the continuous pattern of America growing weaker in economic dimension Vis a Vis China. He opposed to the vassal status of the Philippines towards the US and the lack of latitude in decision making processes in Manila. For decades, American ally imposed its geopolitical will on the Philippines, demanding a substantial limitation of economic and military interactions with China, what greatly contributed to the generation of antagonisms between Beijing and Manila. Coming as a complete surprise, the new Filipino administration decided to engage in a strategy aiming to improve the hitherto rather adversary relationship with ever-more powerful China.
Many alternatives ahead of Philippines
It is worth noting, that the Philippines, on the contrary to what many American experts claim, are far from writing the whole Filipino-American alliance off. Crucial in conceptualising the unexpected, diplomatic shift in Philippines’ agenda is the recognition of the changing realm of international order determined by the inevitable power transition from the Occident towards the Orient. Duterte aims to improve the international position of his country in the new world order, which is being shaped at the very moment. He plans to open the Philippines up to alternatives, instead of rigidly tying nations’ destiny alongside the US. At the meeting with President Putin, Duterte dared to claim, he would gladly join a new world order orchestrated from Beijing or Moscow if there was one(Reuters, 2016).
A headache for the US and a challenge to its allies
The re-established’ and enhanced military and economic cooperation with China as well as Russia, constitutes a great opportunity at Philippines’ disposal. Such a strategy of balancing between Beijing, Moscow and Washington does not determine which side does Duterte pick up, and to a concern of President Obama, it poses a great challenge to the US and its regional allies. The so-far successful strategy adopted by Duterte made the US and its main ally in the region – Japan realise that the control exerted over Philippines’ political decisions will come at a bigger price than before. Thus far, the foundations underneath the trilateral relationship between the Philippines-Japan-US triangle was based upon the common threat coming from Beijing. What response offers the broadly understood ‘US-led coalition’ if the hitherto nemesis of all three of them (China) turns into a friend of just one side of the triangle- the Philippines?
Reaction of Japan and the US
The ¥1 trillion ($8.7 billion) aid, coined in a very diplomatic manner, as the ‘Infrastructure Development Package’, offered by Japan to the Philippines last week, exemplifies a dual approach implemented byS hinzō Abe. It tries to discourage Duterte to go any further in his newly established policy at the same time limiting Chinese influence on Philippines, in line to the good-old approach of balancing and to some extent encirclement. Japan strongly signals the importance of the Philippines to remain within the broad structure of all countries in the region grouped together underneath the American aegis. In order to re-attract the Philippines into the triangular coalition, Japan overwhelms Manila with visionary plans of capital inflows in a form of numerous investments spread across the country. One would dare to call such move a ‘diplomatic’ bribery, in pursuit to prevent Philippines’ from further political reorientation. It serves as an incentive to persuade the Philippines to remain within the American sphere of economic and military influence, what roughly coincides with Japan’s interests.
During the meeting held in Manila, in an attempt to convince Duterte not to break out of the American system, Abe repeatedly accentuated the threat of China as their common cause. China’s growing military assertiveness stimulated by its economic rise was illustrated as the most significant factor determining politics of both countries. Abe’s stance remains clear: Lack of containment, not to mention, the rapprochement with China may turn out detrimental for both Japan as well as the Philippines. However, Philippines’ response to such arguments remain misleading and highly manipulative. On one hand, during the meeting with Prime Minister Abe, Duterte says that the safety and security in South China Sea remain crucial and he stresses that all South-East Asian leaders should further stimulate efforts in advancing the rule of law in the region. On the other hand, however, he blatantly engages in an economic and military trade and cooperation with Moscow and Beijing, opposing the pressure of Tokyo and Washington. Addressing such a challenge, Prime minister of Japan aims to thwart China’s increasingly growing economic and potentially military influence exerted on the Philippines with a broad spectrum of economic and military stimulants. In its offer, Tokyo tempts the Philippines with the increased flows of technology and know-how as well as with the reinvigoration of Japan’s investment plans in Metro Manila. At the centre of the military dimension, in order to balance China’s offers and retain the alleged arms equilibrium Japan places the reinforcement of the mutual cooperation, offering Philippines high-speed boats to patrol the shores of the archipelago. (Japan Times, 2017)
The largely belated and hectic actions undertook by Prime Minister Abe is reminiscent of a cry of despair. Neglected and diminished for years by the US and Japan, the economic needs of Philippines were assured by China long before election of Duterte’s victory. The uncontrolled shift towards the Chinese sphere of influence was gradually taking place during the last decade with insufficient response coming from the ‘Western powers’. Already in 2015, through a series of purchases, franchises and joint-ventures China owned or controlled 40% of the power production and transmission in Philippines. (Stern, 2016) Is then the policy of accepting the inexorable intrinsically flawed?
Projection of the future scenarios
The course espoused by Duterte, namely an attempt to open the country up for new alternatives geostrategically, not resigning from American military protection seemed very logical and advantageous to Philippines in June, at the time of Duterte’s presidential election victory. Under the predictable and stable term in office of President Obama, Philippines could not expect any major political retaliation coming from the US; a cancellation of the official meeting between presidents at most. However, in the face, of president-elect Trump’s victory, Trump’s unpredictable agenda may lead to a situation, where the Philippines are given an ultimatum. In regard to Donald Trump radical and sometimes extreme ideas, in a scenario, where Philippines are impelled to make a choice and decides to side with the US, they may end up in a less advantageous position than from before the Duterte’s era.
There is a broad spectrum of scenarios the Philippines may face. Further military cooperation with China, the worst nightmare of Japan and the US imaginable, remains rather improbable, given the territorial disputes over the Scarborough Shoal on the South China Sea. Moreover, American military presence in the Philippines remains the fundamental foundation underneath the Philippines’ security and military strategy. Had it not been for the military protection of the Philippines sponsored by the US, Manila would not have had any room to manoeuvre between Washington, Moscow and Beijing and to depart from the once accepted position of international subjugation for security. Nevertheless, considering the speeches of Duterte from the time before he became the president, regarding a willingness to back down on the sea disputes over the Spratly Islands in favour of the economic and military gains, further rapprochement with China remains another potentiality. Duterte’s maverick strategy bringing dismay and concern to the political discourse over the future of the region remains an unprecedented puzzle to many experts.
Jan Kajetan Wojtyński
Reuters Manila (2016) Rodrigo Duterte slams western ‘hypocrisy’ as he meets Putin Rodrigo Duterte slams western ‘hypocrisy’ as he meets Putin. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/20/rodrigo-duterte-slames-western-hypocrisy-as-he-meets-putin
BBC (2016) Why is the South China Sea contentious? Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13748349
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Shimbun, T.Y. (2017) Abe: R.P. to get ¥1 tril. for economic cooperation. Available at: http://the-japan-news.com/news/article/0003455883
gbtimes (2016) China calls for end to cold war thinking following Duterte’s ”separation” with US. Available at: http://gbtimes.com/world/china-calls-end-cold-war-thinking-following-dutertes-separation-us
Stern, T. (2016) ‘Chinese Investments in the Philippines’, Journal of Political Risk, 4(6).