Originally appeared at A-specto, translated by Valentina Tzoneva exclusively for SouthFront
Rodrigo Duterte has been the new president of the Philippines only for a few months, but he has already managed to attract the attention of the world media. They call him the ‘Philippines’ Trump’, although it is very difficult to compare the former prosecutor and mayor of Davao with the American billionaire. The Philippine President came with a promise to change the foreign policy orientation of the Philippines. Unlike Trump, who, even if he wanted to cannot turn the US foreign policy 180 degrees, Duterte has a chance to fulfill most of his promises.
The Philippines is an important strategic factor in south-east Asia. The change in the direction of its foreign policy – from a satellite of the US to alliances with China and Russia – will have an impact throughout the Asia-Pacific region. After coming to power in the summer of this year, Rodrigo Duterte vowed to shoot at drug dealers on the spot. The experience which he has accumulated over 20 years as mayor of the second largest city in the Philippines, suggests that he is really not joking. When the “world community” became outraged by his plans for an extra-judicial crackdown on drug traffickers, Duterte did not begin to explain or apologise, but in the literal sense of the word sent them to “hell.”
Moreover, especially regarding Barack Obama, he sent the following message: “I’m not an American puppet. I am president of a sovereign state. I do not answer to anyone except to the Philipino people. S** of a b****, damn you. Tell that to everyone.” Leaving the insulting tone aside, it is clear that the purpose of the Philippine President is to restore national sovereignty in the Philippines, to engage in solving many internal problems of the country. In a globalised world, this will surely cause conflict, especially with the US, in the context of the historic relations between the two countries.
The island nation was first conquered by Spain, and at the end of the 19th century, Spain sold it to the United States. After the colonisation, the Yankees were at war with the local population for several years, which was unwilling to put up with the change of one master with another. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Philippines received the status of a country associated with the US, and before that, the US called them “a dependent territory” in order to avoid the embarrassing name of a “colony.” During World War II, the island was conquered by Japan, which declared it an independent state.
After the US took back the territory from the Japanese, they acknowledged the independence of the Philippines, but retained control of state governance, defence and the economy. There are two US military bases on the island, which were actively used by the Pentagon both in the Korean and the Vietnam wars. As a whole, the Philippines was given the role of a barrier “reef” in military terms, which extends along the entire western Pacific Ocean, from Japan to Australia. In 1986, President Ferdinand Marcos was ousted after ruling the country for two decades and the new government came with the ambition to liberate itself from the actual occupation of the United States. In 1992, the United States closed its military bases on the island; however, contracts for assistance and military cooperation between the two countries continue to be in effect. The US still considers the Philippines to be one of its closest allies under its control.
Filipinos themselves also appear reluctant to assert their independence because of the many problems in the country for which they rely on the Americans for resolution. The Philippines governments have been engaged in armed combats with leftist rebels for decades. And then to this conflict is added the problem of radical Islamist groups, although 90% of the island’s population is Catholic. The problems with the economy and the lack of resources for securing the living standards of the fast-growing population in a country of 100 million follow. The Americans naturally support the Philippines governments, and to this day, remain the largest investors and a major trading partner of the country.
In 2002, the United States sent troops to fight the local branch of ‘Al-Qaeda’ as an argument for its permanent establishment in the country. When Washington officially announced that it has begun to orient its policy towards the Pacific Ocean in order to limit the expansion of China in the region, this again prompted the resumption of talks on the possible use of the former US navy base at Subic Bay. Although ASEAN countries wish to maintain good relations with America and China, Washington is seeking to limit the development of their relations with Beijing. In Vietnam and Cambodia, the USA has slim opportunities for influence, but it definitely does not intend to leave the Philippines in the orbit of China, as such a danger is already emerging.
In 2015, American troops were withdrawn from two southern islands, but Duterte said that even the US Special Forces left for training should return to the United States. In response, Washington began talking about possible problems with the supply of American weapons, but the Philippines President announced that he is considering buying weapons from Russia and China. This deepened the contradictions between Manila and Washington, and some American analysts expressed concern that the Philippines could get the USA involved in a war with China. The dispute between the Philippines and China for ownership of the Spratly islands and Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea plays a certain role. Manila won a case against China at The Hague for ownership of the disputed islands, but China rejected the court’s decision. For the US, however, it is much more profitable that the Philippines is not in control of these islands and for the territorial dispute to continue as, in this way, it will keep its role of a “guarantor of safety” of the island state.
With the appearance of President Duterte, however, a threat to US interests appeared. It is about the ability to settle the conflict for the islands through direct negotiations between Manila and Beijing. The 71-year-old President of the Philippines does not belong to the Filipino political elite, which is closely tied to the US. And the pro-American elite have already lost much of their previous positions. The opposition to US interests by Duterte is not a solitary act. Washington began to push the rioting satellite. On 26 September 2016, Western ratings agencies threatened to reduce the investment rating of the country and, of course, the rate of the local peso marked a dramatic decrease. But Duterte stated that he has no intention of changing the foreign policy by saying: “I will create trade links with China and Russia, so all of you and the other investors can simply go. No problem … The hell with those ratings. I will open the Philippines to the Russians and Chinese so they can do business here. We will sign trade agreements … I do not intend to cut ties with the US, but we will sign contracts with Russia and China.” After that, the President said that at the meeting of ASEAN in Laos he told Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev: “I have the intention to cross the Rubicon in relation with the US. That’s why, at least for the next six years, I will need your help.”
Furthermore, Duterte said that besides Prime Minister Medvedev, he has held preliminary talks privately with the President of China, Xi Jinping, and intends to visit Beijing and Moscow by the end of this year. He promised to open the telecommunications and aviation sectors to foreign companies, or to those sectors of the economy for which, so far, Manila has led a protectionist policy. Naturally, questions about the shipment of weapons and energy will be discussed in the course of the visits to Russia and China. The Filipinos are also interested in Russian technologies for exploration and mining, and the construction of hydroelectric plants.
Duterte’s turn to both Russia and China is significant for the fact that in the eyes of more and more countries, the axis Moscow-Beijing is already accepted as an alternative to the US. Undoubtedly for the Philippines, China is the more important partner, but whether it will be China and/or Russia is not so important. The risk of repeating the “Cuba“-case in its protectorate is more uncomfortable for the United States. Duterte was not present at the meeting of ASEAN in Sochi because, although he was elected as president, he was not yet in office, which prevented him from meeting with President Putin. But perhaps now, with his visit to Moscow, this will happen. Moreover, up to now, Putin has never had a meeting with Philippine presidents. The two presidents can hold such a meeting at the Asia-Pacific Cooperation Forum (ATEC) in November, but it is more important that if Rodrigo Duterte continues to strongly defend his course towards the independence of the Philippines from the tutelage of the United States, this would lead to serious geopolitical shifts in the Asian-Pacific region and stabilise the position of the Eurasian coalition.