Duterte’s pivot risks destabilizing SE Asia

By Qi Hao Source:Global Times Published: 2016/10/27 20:03:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

During his recent visit to Beijing, the new president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, announced a separation with the US, which raised a big question regarding the future of the US-Philippines alliance. The spokesman of the US State Department expressed cautiously that the US would figure out what exactly Duterte referred to by those words. The US rebalancing strategy is being faced with great challenges.

Duterte's sharp turn leaves not only the US suspect of his intentions, but also leaves doubt in China about the credibility of such an impulsive rapprochement.

With such a dramatic change, some underlying implications and factors other than realistic calculation and hedging are in play.

First, it's true that Duterte is making a policy shift based on not only calculation of interests, but also his dissatisfaction toward the US. However, it would be a hard blow for the Philippines to break up totally with the US, given the Philippines' decades of collaboration with the US both in terms of security and political connections. Such a dramatic shift of policy would add more risk to its domestic stability.

Second, Duterte's turn indeed does a great favor to China in alleviating the tensions in the South China Sea, which would set a good example for Vietnam and other South China Sea claimants showing that negotiation is a more practical choice.

But a good result will not unfold automatically if China and ASEAN countries as a whole do not strike a more institutionalized way of conflict resolution.

The real question is whether China can use this opportunity to convey to other ASEAN countries that China is a stabilizer, not a troublemaker. If China's foreign policy focused more on highlighting rules and order, the current situation could initiate a real peace-making process instead of an improvement with a single country.

Third, the Philippine case may worsen the downward spiral of the security dilemma between China and the US. A positive role of the ASEAN countries lies in their buffering function between China and the US. If these countries swing into China's orbit, it could force the US to confront China directly by taking clearer and more frequent actions in the South China Sea.

In a sign of anxiety, the US Navy sent the USS Decatur, a destroyer, into the Xisha Islands waters just after Duterte left Beijing. According to US media, this freedom of navigation operation reveals obvious anxiety that improving China-Philippines relations would threaten US interests in the area.
Fourth, the competition between China and the US may force more ASEAN countries to move closer to one of them, though maintaining a delicate balance serves best their interests.

There is no doubt that the next US president would spare no effort in further promoting the rebalance to Asia policy. This could force regional countries into two camps. Thus the shift of the Philippines would not be a special case, but could be replicated by other ASEAN countries being confronted with both domestic and international pressures. Considering the potential conflict between China and the US in the South China Sea and the competition in trade, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank versus the Trans-Pacific Partnership, taking an apparent neutral stand between China and the US would be more difficult if not impossible for most ASEAN countries due to their lack of independence.

The Philippines is a small country that bears a common logic of survival with most other ASEAN countries. The Duterte pivot may have begun with an expedient calculation, but solidified as a long-term deal, the result of which depends largely on how the US and China interact with the Philippines as part of their strategic competition.

China should bear in mind that the US went back to the Subic Bay with the implementation of a rebalancing to Asia policy. The South China Sea will be a flashpoint. If not handled well, the opportunity brought by Duterte will lapse or even be transformed into real danger due to miscalculation and misperception by both China and the US.

The author is an assistant research fellow with the Institute of American Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

Posted in: ASIAN REVIEW

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