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Philippines' Duterte and a Precarious Political Strategy

Philippines' Duterte and a Precarious Political Strategy

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By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines recently chose to end the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States, with the arrangement to expire within 180 days. The firebrand Filipino president has made numerous conflicting statements regarding the Philippines’ overall relationship with the U.S., but this time he seems to have made up his mind to scrap certain elements of military cooperation.

The U.S. revocation of a visa for one of Duterte’s political allies may have triggered this event. However, the Duterte regime has been not been on the friendliest of terms with Washington for the past few years.

Senator Ronald Dela Rosa, the political ally in question, stands accused of extrajudicial killings associated with Duterte’s “War on Drugs” campaign. In situations of strategic importance, the U.S. has seemingly overlooked such abuses publicly, but it applied pressure to the regime behind the scenes.

There have certainly been times when the U.S. has rebuked allies publicly. But with the U.S. making the visa revocation so widely known, it would appear that Washington does not view the Philippines as strategically important as it once did.

Other US-Filipino Defense Agreements to Remain in Place?

It’s also possible that the Visiting Forces Agreement that Manila wishes to scrap does not abrogate the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty or the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). As a result, the U.S. and the Philippines still have defense treaties in place that allow for continued cooperation. These treaties may be sufficient from Washington’s perspective.

Duterte has threatened these agreements as well, and he makes an interesting point as to why he thinks the U.S. will not honor the treaties. The Philippines’ archipelago is comprised of over 7,000 islands with some of those islands coming under territorial dispute with China.

This dispute originated after the signing of the 1951 treaty. But the U.S. did not feel compelled to wade into the controversy over the South China Sea islands, a disagreement that originated in earnest over the past few decades.

Furthermore, arbitration at The Hague over the dispute ruled in the Philippines’ favor, but Manila must still be concerned over when and where the U.S. will render assistance if it is ever needed. The vague language often found in treaties is cold comfort for an island nation that has faced invasion and colonization so frequently in its history.

Washington provided aid in 2013 when Typhoon Yolanda devastated some areas of the country. In addition, the U.S. rendered assistance in 2017 during the Siege of Marawi upon the request of the Filipino government.

Duterte’s Precarious Balance between US and Chinese Goals

The U.S. has demonstrated its willingness to assist the Philippines. However, it seems that Duterte wants to have both assistance from Washington when it suits him and the U.S. at arm’s length.

Part of Duterte’s strategy is to win concessions from either Washington or Beijing by playing the two nations off one another. China is a strange bet for Duterte as China is consistently infringing upon the Philippines’ territorial claims, but he must know that such outreach is sure to rankle people in Washington, regardless of his logic.

President Duterte has tried to overcome a U.S.-centric foreign policy, but it seems that the fate of the Philippines continues to be beholden to other, more established powers. While Manila may attempt to play two competing powers against each another, Duterte cannot control the ultimate outcome.

China wants to exert dominance over both the South China Sea and the East China Sea, so that it can better control shipping lanes to and from its nation. Having both of those waters fully under Beijing’s control still would not be enough.

China must also control the Philippine Sea and the Strait of Malacca off the coast of Singapore. Having political influence in Manila is one very small step along the way to that goal, but nothing short of military occupation of the Philippines will provide what China seeks. But to be frank, China engaging in any foreign occupation to gain control of the so-called first and second island chains is not within Beijing’s ability.

The Growing Aggression of China in the South China Sea

That limitation has not stopped China from taking what it can in the South China Sea. As China has become increasingly aggressive in those waters, neighbors of the Philippines have reached out to the U.S. and other allies, looking for security assistance.

For its part, Washington has been vague, at times seemingly noncommittal, about certain regional engagements. The U.S. is concerned about smaller powers sparking a conflict, which could inadvertently drag the U.S. into another protracted war that is not of its choosing.

However, Washington has another avenue to pursue that does not include entangling alliances or forward-deploying troops to the South China Sea. The U.S. Navy has the ability to shut down China’s Achilles heel without coming within range of the Chinese military. The Strait of Malacca is China’s lifeline to the outside world and its sources of petroleum. An industrialized nation stops being industrialized the minute it loses its access to energy, and China sources nearly all of its petroleum from beyond its shores.

The Philippines is trying to play a weak hand as skillfully as it can, and Duterte is betting that his unorthodox approach to politics is enough to force concessions from Washington if he continues to flirt with Beijing. The U.S. may see this as a setback if it loses access to the Philippines while China cannot, at least now, exploit the opening.

But when the Philippines, even under Duterte’s tutelage, needs assistance, its first call is still to Washington. Treaty or no treaty, that is unlikely to change in the near term.

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