Monday, March 27, 2017

Prognostics of the Duterte-Trump Alliance

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By Chester B Cabalza

Blogger's Notes:

Commentary of an Academic 
(Copyright @ 2017 by Chester B Cabalza. All Rights Reserved).

Right after Rodrigo Duterte spontaneously called for an economic and military “separation” from the United States last October 2016 to the amazement of Xi Jinping and Beijing spectators during his grand state visit in China, it has caused bafflement and commotion between Filipino and American policy-makers in his effort to forge an “independent foreign policy”.

Debates on the joint military exercises and trade treatises between the oldest allies in Asia scaled back following the fall of the Peso but it survived a bullish yet volatile market making the archipelagic nation one of the fastest growing economies worldwide at the end of the year.  

The mixed reactions of the “separation” found its own niche after Duterte visited Japan, another US ally, also in the same month weeks after his pivot to China. It turned out to be a defining moment in his young tenure after beating a momentum to rising China to balance the equation of power in the region.

Japan reciprocated the visit in January 2017 when Shinzo Abe, the first Asian and global leader, to engage with Duterte to promote economic and trade deals with the Philippines.

Cementing regional alliances to Asian powerhouses after his strings of successful engagement in East Asia’s capitals, he has yet to visit the United States after the remaining superpower elected its new president last November 2016.

The following month, American President Donald Trump conveyed his invitation for Duterte to the White House after the Filipino leader reached out to him over a telephone conversation fresh from his triumph.

Hopes of reconciliation could appear under a strengthened “Trump of the East” and “Duterte of the West” bilateral engagement. The two leaders are known for their shrewd diplomacy and pragmatic positions on various issues.

Re-alignment in the South China Sea

While Duterte assured the Asian Argonauts to respect the rule of law amidst unsettled maritime and territorial disputes, despite the Philippines having won the landmark case against China decided by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, the giant neighbor visibly holds the high ground in the militarized contested resource-rich artificial islands.

Apparent concessions were made by Beijing after Duterte’s visit to China to allow Filipino fishermen resume activities in their traditional fishing ground as a warm-up in the revived bilateral relations.

Chinese vessels quietly left the shoal since the 2012 standoff between the two parties.  

While the Philippines has officially launched its chairmanship of the 2017 ASEAN summit this month with vested interest to set the agenda, coinciding with the regional block’s golden anniversary. It is expected that the future of the South China Sea will become a hot item and forum for debates among scholars, strategists, and regional leaders. 

Hence the increased power play of major powers in the region may be seen and felt; ASEAN nations must grab this momentum to confess a joint communiqué to pursue a peaceful settlement for the Panama Canal of the 21st century.

However, without a clear US policy from the Trump administration, perhaps reversing Obama’s pivot to Asia spelled out in the “freedom of navigation and overflight” principle, a rigid 180-degree turn huffed from Secretary of State’s Rex Tillerson may lead to a clash of the titans in the highly-disputed waters of the South China Sea.

To de-escalate tensions in the region, major actors must forge US-China-ASEAN Summit to mutually set dialogues among leaders in paving way for confidence building. 

The South China Sea conundrum becomes a litmus test for the US on its control in the region as a hegemon. Failure to sustain military prowess and economic influence over small and medium powers will backfire on its global position as the world’s police, nonetheless, paving more way to China’s rightful position. 

Contest of power

While Trump’s position on alliances remains to be tested, as expressed during his recent inauguration, to seek friendship and goodwill with the nations worldwide emphasizing to put first each nation’s own interests, his robust pronouncement underscores a strong protectionist policy.

For Duterte, his nine-months in the office certainly placed him in the world’s limelight with his unbending “War on Drugs” amidst increasing extrajudicial killings.

In his stint as Philippine president, he made radical geopolitical shifts: firstly, by engaging with China while derecognizing the importance of the PCA’s decision to save face the Chinese leaders; and secondly, a forceful partnership with Russia is in the making pursuing closer economic and security ties by forging a probable defense pact.

By early January, Russian navy deployed two warships to the Philippines and promised to donate brand-new military equipment to one of Asia’s fragile armed forces. Duterte will make a state visit to Moscow by second quarter of the year and a warm engagement with his “idol” Vladimir Putin will certainly fortify an elevated partnership.

Duterte has indicated his advancement to Russia after being denied weapons and criticized in the US media for his controversial War on Drugs.

The infusion of modern weapons from Russia might answer the Philippines’ failed attempts to modernize its armed forces. After reverting back to its strategy from territorial defense operation to internal security operation, his fight against narcotics and terrorism has become a banner defense and security policy.

The Philippines strongman seems to diversify his relations with great powers in the Asia-Pacific region.The tide of fortune works for Duterte’s favor while he accumulates surplus from his astute vision. However, it could be construed as a mendicant handicap becoming a receiver of aids and promises from major powers.

In the foreseen competition of powers in the region, are partnerships to emerging powers become a “new normal” undermining an archaic alliance to a former big brother? Or has the US power now dispensable in the region?

In that case, the US should offer alternative mechanisms to strengthen the armed forces of the Philippines magnified through defence treaties and brace the position of ASEAN on a rules-based norms approach, doubling its efforts as China and Russia accelerate economic and military packages at the expense of their own interests. 

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