Philippines masterfully balancing China, US

By Jiang Wei Source:Global Times Published: 2016/9/22 19:38:39

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte lashed out at his US counterpart Barack Obama earlier this month, warning the US to keep silent on the war against drugs and calling for the withdrawal of US Special Forces from Mindanao. The US-Philippine alliance seems to be declining, and meanwhile the Philippines' relationship with China is gradually warming up. In fact, the Beijing-Manila relationship hinges on the South China Sea issue and the negotiations between the two countries. The US-Philippine alliance is still solid and will continue its smooth development.

The South China Sea arbitration unilaterally initiated by the Philippines in 2013 has strained the relations between Beijing and Manila. The Philippines has suffered great losses from its acts in the international community.

Unlike his predecessor Benigno Aquino III, Duterte has shelved the South China Sea arbitration award and sought bilateral talks with China for a solution. Duterte promised to put aside territorial disputes in exchange for China's support in railway construction before assuming office.

He expressed his hope for China's economic aid in July, and has meanwhile remained ambiguous about US interventions in the South China Sea. Duterte relies on the US for security, and is also attempting to ease tensions with China to lower security risks.

To this end, Duterte has taken a series of measures to express his goodwill to China. He sent 88-year-old former president Fidel Ramos to China, halted the joint patrols in the South China Sea and made no mention of the arbitration in the ASEAN statement.

However, this does not mean Duterte will completely ignore the South China Sea arbitration. He thanked his predecessor for winning the Philippines a trump card, and will use the arbitration award as a bargaining chip to seek more benefits from China in negotiations.

The Philippine government will eventually ask China to implement the South China Sea arbitration award.

During his visit to the 2nd Infantry Division of the Philippine Army in Tanay, Duterte said that Manila has no intention to go to war but warned of a "bloody" confrontation if Philippine territory is infringed upon.

However, only if China satisfies Manila's economic needs and maintains the status quo in the South China Sea, the Philippines will shelve the South China Sea arbitration for a long time. Otherwise, it will rely on the US to counter China.

Duterte has expressed his respect to the US-Philippine alliance on a number of occasions. Although Duterte demanded US troops to withdraw from Mindanao, the Washington-Manila Joint Defense Treaty approved by the Philippines' Supreme Court is still in effect.

Duterte's calling for the withdrawal of US troops from Mindanao does not necessarily signal a rift in military ties between the two countries. US-Philippine military ties lie in the use of military bases, joint exercise and anti-terrorism operations.

The US use of Philippine naval bases, including Antonio Bautista, Basa, Fort Magsaysay, Lumbia and Mactan-Benito Ebuen, has not been affected. US Special Forces were deployed to Mindanao only to assist anti-terrorism operations, which is a minor part of the military cooperation between the two countries.

The Washington-Manila alliance has a solid cooperative basis. The Philippines relies on the US to counter China in South China Sea territorial disputes that have been simmering for a long time. The US, on the other hand, is attempting to use the Philippines as a chess piece to promote its strategy of rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region and strengthening its geopolitical clout there.

Both China and the US are significant to the Philippines. Duterte is taking advantage of the South China Sea arbitration ruling to seek economic advantage from China and to lower security risks. He uses the competition between Beijing and Washington to win Manila maximum benefits.

Compared with his predecessor, Duterte is a pragmatic politician who pursues both political and economic interests. Duterte claimed that the Philippine government will handle disputes with Beijing independently and strive to find the best approach to safeguard national security.

The Philippines' independent diplomacy is vividly reflected in Duterte's impolite words and acts.

The author is a lecturer with the Northwest University of Political Science and Law.

Posted in: Asian Review

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