Duterte’s Play for a Dictatorship

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines attends a ceremony at a military cemetery in Jakarta, Indonesia, September 10, 2016
President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines attends a ceremony at a military cemetery in Jakarta, Indonesia, September 10, 2016 (PPD/King Rodriguez)

When you yearn for a caesar, you more often than not get it. Such now is the price being paid by the people of the Philippines, who swept to power a man whose harsh authoritarianism was clear as day. As the southern island of Mindanao slips into chaos, Rodrigo Duterte’s not-so-subtle desire for absolute power has become all too obvious. Read more

Duterte Wants to Ditch America for China and Russia. Can They Bite?

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines attends a ceremony at a military cemetery in Jakarta, Indonesia, September 10
President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines attends a ceremony at a military cemetery in Jakarta, Indonesia, September 10 (PPD/King Rodriguez)

Betteridge’s law of headlines states that any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered no. And so it is with this one, with a strong caveat: at least not now.

Since election in May, Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ “gotta make some murder to stop some murder” president, has grabbed up headlines by getting so tough on crime, crime is shot in the streets and by insulting the American president. Now, and most geopolitically significantly, Mr Duterte has threatened to bring his country into alliances with China and Russia.

As much of a boon as this would be to the Chinese and Russians, neither can replace the Americans. At least, not right now. Read more

Rodrigo Duterte and the Geopolitics of Insulting the American President

President Barack Obama meets with advisors in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, June 8, 2011
President Barack Obama meets with advisors in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, June 8, 2011 (White House/Pete Souza)

We’ve all had that boss, that teacher, that authority figure whom we insult as soon as their back is turned. We mutter “pig” beneath our breath as the traffic cop walks just out of earshot or WhatsApp some obscenity to describe a boss or teacher who gives us a seemingly unreasonable deadline.

Should we really think that leaders don’t have the same human impulse? Read more

Pacific Trade Pact Clears Senate, Philippines Want In

Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama meet in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, August 27, 2014
Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama meet in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, August 27, 2014 (White House/Pete Souza)

The United States Senate voted on Wednesday to give President Barack Obama the authority he needs to negotiate a trade agreement with eleven other Pacific nations.

The Philippines, a key American ally in Southeast Asia, said the same day it was interested in joining the pact.

Obama’s legislative victory came after his own Democrats had stalled for weeks, seeking higher subsidies for workers whose jobs may be displayed by trade.

Many Democrats and their allies in the trade unions fear the Trans Pacific Partnership will depress wages in the United States and cause more manufacturing jobs to be outsourced to Asia. Their resistance has forced Obama into an alliance with pro-trade Republicans who have otherwise opposed most of his policy.

Last week, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives voted to give Obama “fast track” authority to negotiate a treaty.

The New York Times reports that Wednesday’s vote does not guarantee the trade talks will be successful. But the administration feared that without “fast track” — which prevents lawmakers from meddling in the negotiations — major trading partners like Australia and Japan would refuse to make politically precarious compromises necessary to complete the deal.

Australia is wary of pharmaceutical demands for access to its government-run health insurance program while Japan has dragged its feet on dismantling powerful agricultural cooperatives and high subsidies that shield its farmers from international competition. Without the certainly that America, the bloc’s largest economy, is committed to Pacific free trade, neither state would likely have been in a hurry to make sensitive reforms.

The pact is the economic centerpiece of Obama’s “pivot” to Asia and would liberalize 40 percent of world trade. Supporters say the treaty, if enacted, will boost global economic output by $220 billion over the next ten years.

The trade effort is also meant to bring China into the existing liberal world order rather than have it attempt to create a competing, presumably more authoritarian, order under its own leadership.

China isn’t part of the talks. But a successful treaty would pressure the country — which is expected to overtake America as the world’s largest economy within the next few years — to meet its standards and stop trying to game global trade to impede foreign companies.

Besides Australia, Japan and the United States, the negotiations involve Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

Colombia, South Korea and Taiwan have expressed an interest in joining while the Philippines confirmed on Wednesday it wanted to become part of the pact. In remarks reported by The Diplomat, the island nation’s trade secretary, Gregory Domingo, told a strategy conference in Washington DC, “I want to state clearly and irrevocably that we want to join TPP.”

Philippines, United States Sign New Defense Agreement

Aerial view of the Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines, August 28, 1981
Aerial view of the Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines, August 28, 1981 (US Navy/Larry Foster)

The United States and the Philippines signed a security agreement on Monday allowing for more American troops to be stationed in the country on a rotational basis. The deal gives the Americans greater access to many of the bases they used to maintain, including the Subic Bay Naval Base, for the next ten years.

The agreement marks a turnabout for American-Filipino relations after the United States withdrew most of their troops in 1992 in the face of local protests. It also reflects the new security environment in Asia.

On the final stop of his Asia trip, President Barak Obama appeared with his Filipino counterpart, Benigno S. Aquino III, at a news conference in Manila. Obama took pains to say the deal is not intended to contain China but to “make sure that international rules and norms are protected.”

China and the Philippines are locked in a dispute over claims to uninhabited islands and territorial waters in the South China Sea. In that light, the agreement with the United States is not unexpected. China’s military buildup is causing angst in the region. Its smaller neighbors are becoming increasingly alarmed that their security interests may be threatened without the Americans engaged in Asia. As a result, the Americans are courted by countries in Asia to be a hedge against China.

The Philippines understands it needs the United States military to protect its interest as its own navy was no match for China’s in a recent dispute.

In 2012, in Scarborough Shoal, Chinese maritime patrols had begun enforcing what they said was Chinese sovereign territory. It pushed local Filipino fishermen out of the area. With tensions rising and an armed clash likely to occur, the United States stepped in and persuaded both sides to pull back.

The agreement did not hold as Chinese ships eventually retook the area and continue to hold it today.

Against China’s large navy, the Filipino coast guard is largely helpless. Filipino fishermen for generations made their living off the Scarborough Shoal and are now no longer able to ply their trade.

In that context, it is no wonder that the United States Navy is back with a more visible presence in the Philippines 22 years after being evicted from its bases.

China Sows ASEAN Discord, Seeds of Future Conflict

Philippine foreign minister Albert Ferreros del Rosario greets American secretary of state Hillary Clinton in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 11
Philippine foreign minister Albert Ferreros del Rosario greets Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before the US-ASEAN ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 11 (State Department/William Ng)

The failure of the annual ministerial meeting last week at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia will be a turning point for the region and a catalyst for more serious clashes over the South China Sea between China and the Philippines and Vietnam. What is more, the aftermath of the summit is shaking the core of ASEAN.

In the run-up to the summit, member countries and observers rightly saw an agreement for a “code of conduct” in the South China Sea by ASEAN and China as imperative for preventing increasing clashes between claimant naval and fishing vessels from escalating into a full-blown conflict.

Indeed, in the meetings between foreign ministers before the summit there was word that an agreement was at hand. However, as I wrote in this space last week, China would not be amenable to a binding code of conduct within a multilateral framework of ASEAN because it would constitute a major reversal of longstanding policy of preferring bilateral negotiations, where China has leverage over its smaller neighbors, and of opposing “internationalizing” the South China Sea disputes.

Needless to say, an agreement was ultimately not concluded, nor was there a joint statement issued at the end of the summit. The summit was a catastrophe.

There is also suspicion that when the Philippine foreign minister Albert del Rosario tried to bring up the South China Sea issue during the summit, as this Reuters article details, his microphone was cut off. The Cambodian hosts claimed that it was a technical glitch that felled his microphone but the timing of the malfunction is certainly suspect.

Cambodia, a major recipient of Chinese aid to the tune of $1.2 billion, ten times what it receives from the United States, was suspected by some of being vulnerable to Chinese pressure in order to control the agenda.

Analysts have pointed to the state visit of China’s president Hu Jintao to Phnom Penh in April, the first by a Chinese head of state in twelve years, where new trade deals were announced as pressure to ensure that Cambodia, the current ASEAN chair, not allow the South China Sea disputes to be placed on the agenda of the July meeting.

In the Reuters article, unnamed diplomats who were at the ASEAN summit said that Cambodia even resisted Indonesia’s last-minute attempt at brokering a joint statement because Cambodia did not want any reference to Scarborough Shoal included.

Finally, last Wednesday, after recriminations were mounting over the failed summit, the Philippine Foreign Ministry released an extraordinary document rebutting what it called the “fictions” being perpetrated by “unnamed countries” but also placing blame squarely on Cambodia for not gaining a consensus on a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

The ramifications are that for the first time since its existence an outside power, China, has been able to exploit the internal differences within ASEAN. The foundation of ASEAN, its unity and consensus on common issues, has therefore been breached with China leveraging its economic aid to a member country, Cambodia. Thus, the delicate balancing act by ASEAN countries between China and the American order in the Pacific is showing deep cracks and threatening to fall apart over the disputes in the South China Sea.

China no doubt won a tactical victory using the Cambodians to block the issue from the agenda and thus becoming isolated but in the long run, it is only generating deep resentment from ASEAN countries as well as the other powers in East Asia. As such, China’s heavy handed diplomacy will only result in its isolation in the region and the increasing probability of hostilities breaking out with the Philippines or Vietnam including the nightmare scenario of involving the United States.

A Temporary Reprieve for the Philippines

Philippine and United States navy warships participate in a joint exercise in the Sulu Sea, August 22, 2005
Philippine and United States navy warships participate in a joint exercise in the Sulu Sea, August 22, 2005 (US Navy/William Contreras)

China and the Philippines agreed this week to exercise restraint in all statements and for all actions regarding their ongoing bilateral dispute in the South China Sea. As the result of an incident in which Chinese surveillance vessels interceded to prevent the arrest of fishermen by a Philippine navy ship, both countries have had naval assets stationed near an island chain for some weeks and have actively engaged in a war of words centered around one question — who owns the Scarborough Shoal?

While Beijing continues to claim that the territory, deep inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, is inalienably Chinese, it is clear that both sides are wary of escalating tensions any further.

The announcement, made Tuesday by the Philippine defense minister following talks with his Chinese counterpart, plainly aims to mitigate the possibility of sudden escalations over contested seabed territories and pave the way for a successful diplomatic outcome.

Yet, bilateral détente may be more difficult to achieve and maintain than this announcement suggests. After all, the dispute is but one facet of a larger set of challenges facing Southeast and East Asian states, with countries from Vietnam to the Philippines to Japan concerned about the troubling way in which China is partnering its maturing military capabilities with strong assertions about the extent of its territorial influence.

Taken individually, most questions of territorial sovereignty involving China face a problematic dynamic, as Beijing is clearly willing to use increasingly advanced naval forces as tools with which to leverage favorable outcomes in its bilateral relationships.

Although countries may be amenable to compromise or negotiated settlements with China, the use of Chinese ships and other assets in symbolic deployments in recent years creates a dilemma for would be negotiators and implies that China’s central leadership places high value on securing the ability to freely operate in these waters and discounts initiatives that involve a split settlement.

When coupled with recent reports that the China is actively building more sophisticated aircraft carrying and littoral craft, it is easy to see how bilateral negotiations with China have yet to see any significant progress in resolving territorial issues, with diplomatic tactics in the region hampered by imbalances of capabilities and the choice that all governments must face — to engage on China’s terms or to hedge.

So countries in the region have begun to refocus on multilateral efforts to resolve multiparty disputes. Australia and Japan, for example, have been active in producing rhetoric that encourages the construction of a multilateral dialogue through which China can be engaged.

Moreover, in preparing to deal with the broad implications of the region’s territorial and cultural disputes as a component of the “pivot” to Asia, the United States have sought to persuade their partners to unite to face the common challenges posed by China.

For the Philippines, this means now and in the future that there may be a flip side to exercising restraint over territorial issues, with a greater balance of capabilities present in dispute situations borne of multilateral cooperation.

Japan, for instance, has committed to engage with the Philippines on naval matters, with a goodwill fleet of three vessels from the Japanese Training Squadron visiting the island nation in days to come and joint development programs touted to amount to more than ten new patrol ships for the Philippine Navy within the year.

In terms of continuing to build the multilateral channels for dealing with territorial issues in the South China Sea, it is certainly possible that multilateral talks like those scheduled during the upcoming Shanghai Debate could yield developments.

However, the bottom line is that the Philippines and other countries in the region still face in the near term the problem of rising Chinese military capabilities and the assertive mindset that has so far pervaded Beijing’s dealings in the South China Sea.

So, while the ability of countries to protect their interests and amiably resolve disputes will surely come from multilateral coordination, the question of how effectively beneficial initiatives can be organized remains unanswered, at least for now, and makes any reprieve in dealings with China temporary at best.