By Dan Steinbock
Dr Steinbock is the founder of the Difference Group and has served as research director at the India, China and America Institute (USA) and is a visiting fellow at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies (China) and the EU Center (Singapore). For more, see http://www.differencegroup.net/
The first 18 months of the Duterte government’s presence on the international stage suggests that the aim to recalibrate the Philippines’ relationship with the US and China is possible and necessary. In the first half of the 2010s, Manila and Beijing were drifting toward a geopolitical clash. Nevertheless, former President Benigno Aquino III expected continuity to prevail under what he presumed to be the Roxas government. Similarly, former President Obama anticipated continuity in the US with Hillary Clinton as the next president. But what if Duterte beat Roxas and Trump won in Washington?
Washington’s retreat and return
After World War II, Manila cultivated close relations with Washington and was a major non-NATO ally, supported the US through the Cold War and the War on Terror. Moreover, in the postwar era, the Philippines was seen as the most likely country to prosper in the region. And yet, during the Marcos decades, despite deep ties with the US, the country fell behind the rest of Asia.
At the time, China was focused mainly on its own economic reforms and, after joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, on export-led growth. The latter prevailed until the global financial and Eurozone sovereign credit crises.
Despite pledging change, the Aquino era (2010-16) produced only the benefits of some catch-up growth and regional integration. Its anti-corruption struggle was ineffective, the explosive drugs problem was largely neglected and poverty persisted. Worst of all, it failed to realise the economic potential of the Philippines.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration began its pivot to Asia, including a plan to move the majority of US warships to the Asia Pacific by 2020. Unsurprisingly, China made counter-moves in the region.
President Aquino and Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario saw bilateral talks with China as futile, preferring to rely on a multilateral approach to foreign affairs through the ASEAN. At this time, the government took its boundary dispute with China to the international court while opting for a new defense alliance with the US—the 2014 EDCA—which was followed by the return of an American naval presence in Subic Bay.
Erosion of Manila-Beijing ties
In Beijing, the Philippines came to be seen as US military platform in Southeast Asia, with Vietnam a complement to Japan. Washington encouraged rearmament in all three countries. In Japan, that meant the end of the pacifist postwar constitution while in the Philippines and Vietnam it resulted in rising military expenditures. In turn, US defence contractors reaped economic benefits as tensions in the South China Sea drove up the demand for weapons.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) the US provided 90% of Japan’s weapons imports in 2012-16, while the Philippines started a military expansion program and increased arms imports by 426% from 2007 through to the end of the Aquino era.
This militarisation benefited the Pentagon and some of its Western allies but led to friction with China at precisely the wrong time. As the Obama administration orchestrated its military pivot to Asia it was alienating China, which was promoting regional financing by the BRICS New Development Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the grandiose One Belt One Road initiative.
What was the net effect? When Chinese foreign investment really took off in Asia the Philippines was largely bypassed. Instead, as Aquino and Rosario were struggling for what they felt were Manila’s vital sovereign interests in the region the country grew more geopolitically dependent on Washington.
Four scenarios but…
Before the 2016 Philippines election, there was real concern that the country was heading toward a confrontation with China in the South China Sea. Manila’s new defence alliance with Washington added to the distrust.
Just as Duterte won the election, the US Navy sent its third warship in less than seven months into the waters of the disputed South China Sea. In hindsight, such actions, which were seen as highly provocative in Beijing, probably reinforced Duterte’s determination to recalibrate ties between the US and China. But did he have any viable alternatives?
According to studies by the Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS) and the Foreign Service Institute that were released soon after Duterte’s electoral triumph, there are four possible scenarios for Southeast Asia’s future. The realisation of these depend on whether or not China and the Philippines will opt for a cooperative or assertive stance in bilateral relations.
If Beijing refuses cooperation with Manila, it will corner the Duterte government into relying even more on US security assurances. This is a regional dead-end scenario.
Conversely, if Beijing seeks cooperation but Manila takes a step back, due to external pressure, the result would be a polarisation scenario. In that case, Manila would have to lean even more on the US, while China might resort to even greater defensive measures. Both countries would lose economically.
In the third scenario, old policies prevail which would ensure the failure of bilateral talks, harden attitudes and increase the probability of proxy conflicts in the South China Sea. This is the destabilisation scenario—a costly nightmare economically and strategically, and possibly in human lives.
… Only one path to the future
The only reasonable approach would have to start with a Sino-Philippines bilateral conversation that would lead to a formal dialogue. The latter could reduce the weight of geopolitics while enabling mutual gains in economic development. This stabilisation scenario would be the most preferable economic, political and strategic trajectory for Manila, Beijing, the ASEAN and, over time, for Washington as well.
It is also the scenario that the Duterte government has opted for, despite the alleged “Goldberg regime change plan” and the associated efforts at destabilisation—the last relic of the Obama pivot.
Despite occasional tough bilateral rhetoric and disagreements, peace and stability between the US and China along with thriving bilateral trade and investment would allow greater focus on economic development, particularly in Asia.
This is what the Philippines needs—greater infrastructure investment for industrialisation and urbanisation, constitutional changes to ensure substantially increased foreign investment, all of which would foster rising living standards and reduce poverty.
For the first time in decades, solid growth may translate into substantial gains in the lives of ordinary Filipinos. Of course, the Duterte balancing act will not be easy. But failure is not an option and all the alternatives are worse.
The original commentary was published by The Manila Times on December 4, 2017
Featured Image Source: Wikimedia
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