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’s Play for a Dictatorship”

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

Rodrigo Duterte and the Geopolitics of Insulting the American President

Barack Obama
American president Barack Obama talks with advisors at the White House in Washington DC, December 5, 2015 (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 “Rodrigo Duterte and the Geopolitics of Insulting the American President”

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

Hillary Clinton
American secretary of state Hillary Clinton delivers remarks at a summit 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. Read more “China Sows ASEAN Discord, Seeds of Future Conflict”

A Temporary Reprieve for the Philippines

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. Read more “A Temporary Reprieve for the Philippines”

Careful Balancing Act for Southeast Asia

On Monday, South Korean president Lee Myung-bak visited Burma and promised to extend loans and grants to the poverty stricken country.

The surprise visit came as Japan and South Korea have stepped up their diplomatic engagement in Southeast Asia over the last month, which, in turn, comes on the heels of closer engagement by the United States since 2009.

This stems not only from a desire to gain access to the region’s natural resources but more importantly, to bolster their soft power in the Mekong region, an area that is becoming increasingly important as concerns persist about Chinese foreign policy amid the rapid modernization of the People’s Liberation Army. However, while the Mekong countries are interested in the economic and political benefits from closer relations with the United States, they are mindful of the risk of antagonizing China. Read more “Careful Balancing Act for Southeast Asia”

Did China Win the Day in Navy Standoff?

The Chinese fishermen who were engaged in a standoff at sea with Philippine navy ships simply sailed away on Saturday and so did the main Philippine warship. Crisis averted? Not quite.

Tensions flared anew after China deployed a second surveillance ship, along with an aircraft that briefly flew over a Philippine coast guard vessel at the disputed shoal where the Chinese say their fishermen sought refuge from a storm.

Manila accused the Chinese of illegally entering its waters and collecting endangered coral, clams and live sharks near the Scarborough Shoal on Tuesday, northwest of the Philippine islands. Two Chinese navy ships arrived at the scene within a matter of days to prevent the arrest of the fishermen.

According to the Philippines, “The stalemate remains,” even if neither the fishing crew nor the surface combatant BRP Gregorio del Pilar are evidently present at the scene anymore. Read more “Did China Win the Day in Navy Standoff?”

Chinese-Philippine Standoff in South China Sea

It’s not all quiet in the South China Sea anymore! The Philippines’ largest warship was engaged in a tense standoff with Chinese surveillance vessels in the area on Wednesday after the ship attempted to arrest Chinese fishermen.

The crew of the BRP Gregorio del Pilar boarded Chinese fishing vessels for an inspection on Tuesday which were found in vicinity of the disputed Scarborough Shoal, situated more than two hundred kilometers west of the Philippines. The sailors discovered large amounts of illegally collected coral, clams and live sharks aboard one of the Chinese ships.

Two Chinese maritime surveillance ships then approached and positioned themselves between the Gregorio del Pilar and the fishermen. “There’s a standoff,” said a spokesman for the Philippine ministry of foreign affairs. According to the Chinese, the “marine surveillance ships are in this area fulfilling the duties of safeguarding Chinese maritime rights and interests.”

For good measure, Beijing added that the shoal “is an integral part of the Chinese territory and the waters around it, the traditional fishing area for Chinese fishermen.” Manila similarly insists that the shoal, which is really group of islands and reefs, “is an integral part of Philippine territory.” A Filipino navy official told the Associated Press that more ships are underway. Read more “Chinese-Philippine Standoff in South China Sea”