Dealing with a bellicose, Third World Prez

By: Bobby M. Tuazon
Philippine Daily Inquirer
October 5, 2016


PRESIDENT DUTERTE’S resolve to chart an independent foreign policy has exponential implications on Asian geopolitics and puts a spike on US hegemony in the region. American lawmakers are mulling retaliatory measures. To them, the maverick Filipino President can be tolerated, but any move to oust a key US strategic military outpost in the Philippines is another thing.

In a recent two-punch announcement, Mr. Duterte “served notice” that this month’s PH-US war games will be the last. While honoring treaty commitments with Washington, he also said he would forge economic alliances with China and Russia.

Mr. Duterte turned a new page in foreign policy when, instead of first paying a courtesy call on the White House, as his predecessors did, to reassure “special ties” with America, he flew to Laos for the Asean Summit, and then went on a state visit to Vietnam. Soon, he will go to China and Russia.

He had earlier railed against US meddling following President Barack Obama’s hectoring that the war on drugs should be done on the right track. “For as long as we stay with America, we will never have peace,” he said, and followed it up with the statement that US forces should leave Mindanao. “We might as well give it up.”

With US politics in transition amid a divisive presidential election, it will take time for US officials to take stock of the changing gears in Philippine foreign policy and figure out how to whip a bellicose, third-world President into line. But America’s carrot-and-stick diplomacy is now in the works, with the US Embassy in Manila hinting of possible cuts in US aid.

Disturbed that Mr. Duterte’s anti-American jabs are undermining the two countries’ strategic alliance, some US policymakers are using the extrajudicial killings in the war on drugs as an issue to teach the Filipino President a lesson. Answering a query on the steps America should take if aid cuts would not do the trick, Sen. Patrick Leahy, chair of the powerful US Senate appropriations subcommittee, said on Sept. 26: “We are faced with a broader issue that cannot be remedied simply by withholding assistance.”

Yet unpredictable is Mr. Duterte abrogating the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement and other military deals with America, and court reprisals from the superpower. But the belligerency of his remarks, making him the only Filipino leader to stand up to America, is shaking a relationship long grounded on mendicancy and dependence. It is jarring a strategic alliance flaunted as America’s linchpin in its security engagement in the region, which the Pentagon has falsely claimed as a stabilizing force in the last 70 years. Losing military presence in the Philippines means relinquishing a major hub in the US system of bases and alliances for permanent hegemony in the Asia-Pacific.

But Mr. Duterte is on the right track; his independent foreign policy resonates at the right time. US credibility is on the decline, its much-touted Trans-Pacific Partnership in deep trouble, and Obama’s pivot or rebalancing strategy—which will reposition 60 percent of America’s global force in Asia against China by 2020—now appraised as a failure. Some US apologists see such a failure in the Pentagon’s inability to prevent North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and in curbing China’s facility-building in the South China Sea despite the Pacific Command’s muscle-flexing. Conversely, China’s economic diplomacy is winning over Asian countries as it rolls out its grand “One Belt, One Road” economic connectivity with at least 50 percent of the world’s humanity. A Beijing-based analyst notes: US military power will be made irrelevant by an economy-driven “parallel order” cobbled by China, Russia, and other emerging powers.

Such trends help frame Mr. Duterte’s pragmatism and balancing act: making the Philippines a coequal of America while forging stronger economic cooperation with the latter’s peer competitors. National-interest-driven economic and trade alliances with new economic giants can bolster his administration’s big programs, particularly transport infrastructure and job-generating industries in the provinces. Negotiations can explore using the South China Sea’s marine and oil resources for mutual economic benefits with Chinese and Russian technology, and possibly even Norway, which is now involved in the peace talks.

Independent foreign policy should aim at veering away from security-based relationships, which America dominates, toward an economy-based one which opens limitless possibilities of friendly relations with the world. When based on people-centered and state-regulated sustainable growth, economic relations will help provide a stable base for an independent foreign policy.

But a foreign policy reorientation also needs the reform of two major institutions under the President: the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). The DFA should be further professionalized by expanding the core of career officers to lead Philippine diplomacy. It should now draw up a long-term foreign policy roadmap that includes abandoning a fixated pro-US position in place of a respectable, trustworthy, and beneficial policy track.

As well, Mr. Duterte faces the daunting task of purging the AFP of US influence. The AFP has long acted as America’s surrogate army in fighting foreign wars, including recent ones in the Middle East, as well as being the US state department’s critical force in political upheavals in the Philippines. It should be fully insulated from politics and adhere to civilian supremacy while cutting its reliance on US military aid, training and indoctrination.

Bobby Tuazon, CenPEG’s policy study director, is coauthor and editor of 15 books on foreign policy and international relations, governance, peace process, electoral reform and political parties.

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