Much was made of President Barack Obama’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific region. Now another pivot is under way. Only trouble is that it seems to be unhinged and nobody really knows which way it is going to go.
The pivot all centres on newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte.
This week he headed off to Beijing to meet with Chinese leaders from 18-21 October. Of course, China will be on its most flattering and smoothest behaviour.
Ironically, this is a sharp contrast to China’s acerbic remarks against the Philippines when the court of public opinion – and the Permanent Court of Arbitration – stood against it over the South China Sea row. How the pendulum has swung.
At the moment the Philippine president seems quite enamoured with the Chinese and what they can do for his country. Could Duterte, the one who promised he would ride a jet ski out to Chinese-occupied Scarborough Shoal to plant a Philippine flag, meekly roll over in front of Beijing?
It is clear that Duterte does not like the US. He has already accused the CIA of plotting to assassinate him. He has already told American military advisors (the Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines) to get out of Mindanao. He announced that the recent PHIBLEX exercise between the US Marine Corps and Philippine military would be the last ever under his leadership.
Indeed, this author was present at both the ADAS 2016 defence show last month and PHIBLEX earlier this month (from which the associated photos come). There was palpable tension and uncertainty among diplomats and senior military officials on both sides. The US does not know which way Duterte is going to swing next, so it is striving hard to avoid any provocation.
Duterte’s senior officials are often left scrambling to explain that Duterte did not really mean what he said, or that he was misinformed by advisors. He has even advocated buying Chinese weapons, something odd considering the two countries’ recent history.
His contention that bilateral exercises with the US only benefit the latter are clearly erroneous. The Philippine military is underfunded and strained by two concurrent insurgencies as well as an external territorial threat from China. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) learns far more from exercises like PHIBLEX and Balikatan than the US does. The two countries conduct 28 training activities together annually.
Duterte has also foolishly belittled the efforts of the US military in assisting the Philippines after natural disasters strike.
Will the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) be abrogated? Or the Mutual Defense Treaty dating back to 1951? Duterte said he would not, but he is often guilty of backtracking so one can never be sure. He is particularly angry at the US, the United Nations and anyone else who dares to question his policy of extrajudicial killings of drug dealers.
Duterte, a socialist, has to tread warily. If he concedes too much ground to the communists, whom the AFP has been fighting for decades, or caves in to China, the military will be unhappy. The Philippines has a history of military coups, and Duterte will not want to provoke another one. For this reason he has to placate the military to some degree, whether it be with new equipment or some other way.
Yet Duterte is enjoying immense popularity ratings in the polls. He garnered just 37.6% of votes in the presidential election, but a September poll revealed a 76% approval rating. His anti-crime campaign has already seen more than 3,000 so-called criminals killed. Finally the country has a strong leader who will fight crime and corruption and not let it be downtrodden by the major powers.
Could Duterte then be a genius? Is he playing off the US and China to get the best from both worlds? Possibly… but it seems unlikely. He has already shown a propensity to flip-flop and to contradict himself within brief periods of time.
Which direction will the Philippine pivot go? We watch with bated breath as this bull enters the China shop in Beijing…