Philippines in significant switch of allegiance
NEWS / 31 October 2016, 9:46pm
The Philippines has effectively switched sides in the power struggle between the US and China in the South China Sea, writes Shannon Ebrahim.
While the US is consumed by its preoccupation over who will be its next president on November 8, it is losing influence in regions where it was bent on ensuring its hegemony. Erstwhile US allies are shifting their allegiance to a global power that in many ways has surpassed the US - China.
In the context of the South China Sea, there has been a recent geostrategic reversal of monumental importance. The Philippines, one of the most ardent US allies in South East Asia, has under its new President Rodrigo Duterte decided to “separate from the US” and pursue an independent foreign policy. This includes a “new special relationship with China”.
The Philippines has effectively switched sides in the power struggle between the US and China in the South China Sea. Up until a few months ago, the Philippines was a lynchpin in the US pivot to Asia, and at the centre of US strategic and legal efforts to reduce China’s influence in the South China Sea. The US had encouraged Manila to bring a legal challenge against China’s territorial claims to the International Tribunal in the Hague. The tribunal had ruled in favour of the Philippines in July, although China had rejected the process as illegitimate.
Shortly after taking office in June, the new president of the Philippines announced that he intended to end military co-operation with the US.
He confirmed this position on his visit to Japan this week, where he announced that he plans to free the Philippines of the presence of foreign military troops within the next two years. He has undertaken to revoke any base-hosting agreements with the US.
The significance of such a move cannot be understated as the US relied heavily on the Philippines, and had reached an agreement with Duterte’s predecessor in 2014 to let the Pentagon use five military bases in the country. The Philippines has served as acentral component of the Obama administration’s plan to bolster US influence in Asia and the Pacific.
It must have come as an unwelcome rebuff for the Americans to hear Duterte saying on a visit to Japan this week: “I want them (US troops) out. I will withdraw from any joint military exercises with the US.”
Duterte completed a highly successful four-day state visit to China last week, where he proclaimed in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing: “There are three of us against the world: China, the Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.”
The two countries issued a joint statement saying they will address disputes in the South China Sea through friendly consultations and negotiations, which has been Beijing’s long-held approach.
The strategic shift away from the US and towards China will likely have major dividends for the development trajectory of the Philippines, as 13 agreements were signed that will target infrastructure construction, the improvement of food production capacity, rural development and co-operation in fighting crime. The Philippines is hoping that the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) will play a greater role in the country’s economic and social development.
Perhaps the most strategic co-operation between the two countries will be in the area of defence, although Duterte tried to downplay this aspect on his visit to Japan this week.
In 2017, the Philippines will take over the rotating presidency of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and is likely to promote stronger relations between ASEAN members and China.
But the pivot of the Philippines away from the US may be part of a larger trend in South-East Asia. Two other important US allies in the region, Thailand and Malaysia, have also begun to tilt towards China. The 2014 military coup in Thailand led to a downturn in relations with the US, and in 2015 Thailand announced the purchase of Chinese submarines. The prime minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, has also increasingly looked to China.
As a result of these new geopolitical dynamics, the US has increasingly begun to deepen relations with Vietnam, in the hope that it will push back against Chinese dominance in the region. US Secretary of State John Kerry invited Dinh The Huynh, one of Vietnam’s five key leaders in the Communist Party, on a working visit to the US this week.
In US calculations, Vietnam is now of crucial strategic importance in terms of maintaining US presence and influence in the South China Sea. Huynh has called for stronger defence and security links with the US, and said this week that Vietnam welcomes the active role of the US in keeping peace and stability in the “East Sea”.
It is particularly ironic that two US warships recently visited the Vietnamese naval base of Cam Ranh Bay - the first time since the end of the Vietnam war in 1975. This time they were considered as allies, and not the enemy.
Alliances in the region seem to be more fluid than ever before in recent history, and will continue to present a challenge to the US drive to maintain global hegemony.