Mohamad Radytio -Indonesia
Recently, there was a concern emerged about Philippines. This concern was again floated not because of China’s insistence of claiming disputed territories in the South China Sea, but because the country’s leader, Duterte, said to be sided with China instead of US.
This unprecedented move of Duterte has created an upset not only in the Philippines but also the whole body politics of the ASEAN region.
Duterte’s economic pledges rely significantly on big foreign investments, one clear thing in the region where the U.S. can’t match China. His social pledges also included harsh war against drugs, and to implement his campaign pledges he is waging a war against drugs and what he view as people who supported and profiting from drug trade.
In the process, Philippine security apparatus and informal militias inspired from his stance have committed more than 3,000 extrajudicial killings, many of those involved only at lower level but some high-ranking officials too. This, and other things perceived by some in western countries as violating human rights arouse severe criticism.
Duterte, in turn, reacts with his usual macho-first and tell-it-like-it-is style; vowing to carry on his actions while spilling profanities against many of his critics.
In an apparent response to his criticism, Duterte started talking about the policy independence and in what observers originally said as a bluff. He’s now overtly shrugging on pivot to China and it shows that Duterte walk the talk. He’s calling Philippine’s longtime military cooperation with U.S.A into question.
He considers US’s attitude of being his government’s critics-in-chief warranted some slap. He started to ignore many of US’s programs and demonstrated willingness to buy military hardware from China and Russia. Unlike neighbouring Vietnam and Taiwan, he chooses not to tout International court’s decision on South China Sea (SCS) and instead initiated bilateral negotiation channel on SCS dispute with China. And recently, his much publicized visit to China yielded big investment commitment, bringing home about $ 11 billion, an incredible increase in Chinese investment from the previous years. In short, if not a pivot at least a shift is taking place in Philippines’ foreign policy.
The questions arise here are, does this event means Philippine’s real pivot toward China and –subsequently – further downward relationship with U.S.? And what does these events means toward U.S. influence in the ASEAN?
Duterte’s economic pledges for infrastructural developments such as high-speed railways to social spending such as health subsidy and increase in civil servants’ salary need a lot of funds, and Philippine’s current and expected next budgets would not likely be able to cover all of his pledges. Instead, he needs money to fulfill these pledges. Yet, from data so far, investments from western sources are wiry not enough for it. This may have correlation with their reluctance to invest in low-investment grade countries, in which Philippines currently categorized into.
Duterte may have macho-first street style, but he is also a street-smart, he knows China would not pay much attention into so-called investment rating, if he offers a correct deal. And this is precisely what he has done. His astonishing accomplishment of bring home around $ 11 billion of investment from China seems to coincide with softening stance on SCS dispute. His gestures other than the one the SCS issue also offers China a much needed ‘friend,’ however accidental it looks to outsiders. China is facing a de-facto encirclement attempt from US, as proven by Obama administration’s decision to give firm backing to Vietnam, Taiwan & Japan and its attempt to pass and ratified Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) who poised to curtailed Chinese economic/soft power influence. Duterte’s upbeat China move will carry on positively even after president elect Trump’s announcements about annulling TPP.
For Duterte, pivot towards China also serves as a useful buffer for his domestic policies. There are growing criticism and condemnations against government’s conduct under his leadership, some of it may be influenced by west’s genuine concern over human rights violations, but some other may very well influenced by US & western allies’ inability or unwillingness to understand Duterte’s perspective and Philippine’s context, who faced deep-rooted drug and separatism problems. West has a lot of interest in Philippine, ranging from defense and diplomacy to historical and cultural ties.
In essence, the pivot to China also becomes his shield against further incursion or intervention from US and other western allies.
Yet, it would not evolve into a downgrade in relations. Duterte’s ‘divorce’ statement was swiftly rejected by most of Philippine’s civil and military circles and prompting his own softening of stance few days later. Philippines has had a positively deep, longstanding relationship with USA dating back the colonial era. US has been giving many support to its people. There are millions of Filipinos live in the US, many of whom sending remittances back home and also helped Filipino’s exports there that while doesn’t contribute directly to his economic pledges, could cause recession if circumstances make that remittances and exports interrupted or even decreased.
Duterte also understands that China still has appetite on its legal territory in SCS, an appetite that if succeeded would create legal and popular problems for him. This understanding was proven from his trip to Japan at the end of October, where he signals the need to cooperate on many fields including SCS and asks for further supports from Japan, that indirectly receives backing from the US. The fact that Philippines' public supports both his government and strong, friendly relationship with the US (per AsiaPulse’s newest poll, both category receive around 65-70 % of public opinion support) seems to be another consideration for him.
In ASEAN context, this brings a further weakening, but not waning US influence in the region. ASEAN member countries understand that they need to have a balanced approach toward both superpowers, as they need cooperation from both US and China in almost all fields. Economic cooperation may serve as a main driver in positive relationship with China to counterbalance current western economic weakness, but west’s more progressive communication & technology and its superior diplomatic/soft power will help its member countries in furthering their own transformation into a modern and prosper societies. In a more broad and crude perspective, ASEAN would likely to realize the need to be at the middle of both superpower’s “game”, as president Trump’s apparent harder approach toward China would change the current balance, especially in term of economic field.
Both leaders’ focus very much begins at home, but their domestic aspirations have big international consequences.
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