The announcement Friday by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to terminate the joint patrols with the US in the disputed South China Sea has caused heartburn among US strategists.
These strategists at one time cheered the Philippine victory at the Hague tribunal court which rejected China’s claims to the disputed islands in the South China Sea.
The 107 US troops involved in operating surveillance drones against Muslim militants would also be asked to leave the Southern Philippines once that country acquires intelligence gathering capabilities in the near future.
Duterte also wants to stop the 28 joint military exercises carried out each year.
The US is now confronted with a puzzling situation as the Philippines seems to be cozying up with China, placing Manila’s claims to the South China Sea islands on the back burner.
Duterte who has completed 100 days as the Philippine president, is projected in the US as the “wild bull in the Philippines’ china shop”.
In those 100 days, Duterte has knocked down the fine porcelain of diplomacy and has raised temperatures in relations with the West.
Many fear that Duterte’s decision to terminate the joint patrols with the United States, with which the Philippines has a 65-year treaty alliance, could herald a paradigm shift suggesting that he is taking the Philippines away from the US, a traditional ally, towards China and Russia.
Duterte felt slighted by the criticism from the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and others who have asked him to stop his brutal crackdown on drug addicts and dealers, leaving a trail of more than 3,600 corpses.
Washington’s relationship with Manila also cropped up during a discussion on US policy on Asia at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, America’s leading think tank on foreign affairs.
The discussion held under the title “US Strategy in Asia: Is the Pivot Working?” featured three leading US foreign policy experts – all three have authored books on Asia – with hands-on diplomatic experience such as Kurt M. Campbell, chairman and CEO of Asia Group LLC; Thomas J. Christensen, a professor of World Politics of Peace and War, and co-director of the China and World Programme at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University; and Elizabeth C. Economy, director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Tim W. Ferguson, the editor of Forbes Asia, presided over the discussion.
In reply to a question by this writer, Christensen said that people knew in the Philippine presidential campaign that there was a potential problem in the future, because of some of the campaign rhetoric of the new (Philippine) president.
“At the same time, there have been some infrastructural improvements in US -Philippine relations on the security front that are quite significant.
“I can’t predict what any foreign leader would ever do, but it would be extremely damaging if any Filipino leader were to walk back that progress, particularly at a time in which the Philippines has real disputes in the region with China, and China has been rather assertive in its handling of those disputes,” Christensen said.
He added that he had “read really carefully” the statement of the Filipino foreign minister on the comments of the Philippine President on the US -Philippine alliance.
“And I started to think, this might not be an entirely bad thing from an American perspective, because what was being emphasised is we’re too dependent on the United States to take care of us, and we need to have more strategic independence,” Christensen explained.
“And I don’t think its America’s desire to have a weak Philippine military that’s totally dependent on the United States. I think the United States would like to have strong partners in the region, and that if the Philippines is able to contribute more that would be good,” he said.
He added that he saw a “kind of silver lining” in the discussion of what it may all mean.
But he also admitted that he would be “surprised and extremely disappointed” if somehow the alliance were to break down.
“That would be really a radical policy. I don’t think it would serve the Philippines’ interests. I don’t think it would be popular in the Philippines,” he said.
Campbell agreed with Christen’s comments but he added that he was not as concerned about the strategic parameters.
“But I think some of the extralegal, extrajudicial steps that are being practiced in the Philippines invariably and inevitably are going to undermine our ability to cooperate effectively.
“I think it’s going to be very challenging going forward … foreign policy is never easy. And you accept a lot of stuff.
“But when the (Philippine) leader is calling you really bad names, it’s really hard. It’s hard to figure out how to—how to go forward.
“I’m all for the Philippines positioning itself, that it has stronger relations in the region as a whole. And I think that they are working more closely with China. I have no problem with that.
“I think it’s smart. I think it’s wise. But I think it’s the other contours of his policies that I think are going to cause a real challenge in US-Filipino relations going forward. And I don’t think this current trajectory that we are on is sustainable,” Campbell said.