Duterte ups ante in foreign policy thrust


President Duterte is sustaining his unorthodox way of crafting, by installment, an independent foreign policy through off-the-cuff talks before various Filipino audiences. Before a large group of Filipinos in Hanoi, soon after his arrival on official visit to Vietnam, he disclosed two courses of action he had decided on.

One is to maintain the military alliance with the United States under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, while terminating joint military exercises conducted yearly under the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement. There’s one scheduled on October 4-12, involving 1,400 American troops and 500 Filipino counterparts in amphibious-landing exercises and live-fire training in Palawan and other parts of Luzon. (It would be the first under his administration.)

“I would serve notice to you now [addressing the Americans] that this will be…the last one,” the President declared. Then he added, “Ayaw ko lang mapahiya ang Defense Secretary ko. (I just don’t want to embarrass my defense secretary.)”

The other course Duterte said he would take was to “establish new alliances for trade and commerce” with China and Russia, among other countries. He is reportedly set to visit China on October 20-21. One big step his administration will take is to join, before the year ends, the China-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, availing of its facilities to finance its stepped-up infrastructure program.

(The $100-billion AIIB, which opened in December 2015 with 57 member-nations, specifically aims to fund infrastructure projects in Asia-Pacific. It is like the US-led World Bank and the Japan-led Asian Development Bank. These two countries haven’t joined the new bank.)

Early this week, amid foreign media reports of possible “backlash” from the eroding RP-US relations, the President said he would “cross the Rubicon” – “a point of no return” that would see him pursuing relations with China and Russia. A day before flying to Hanoi, Duterte told a crowd in Pampanga: “I’m asking the Filipino people in the coming days, if America will make good its threat, to sacrifice a little bit. But by next year, I would have entered into so many new alliances with so many countries.”

In the first piece I wrote on this topic (on Sept. 17), I cited Duterte’s calls for disentangling Philippine forces from joint patrols with the US in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea and for the remaining US troops in Mindanao to leave as the initial practical manifestations of his foreign policy thrust. In Hanoi, he did reiterate and clarify that no Philippine warships will engage in these joint patrols, as this might provoke armed conflict with China.

Despite varying interpretations by his Cabinet officials of Duterte’s pronouncements – State Department and Pentagon officials point out that there has been no official notification from the government of its policy shift – one can detect the logic behind the President’s words.

A definitive break in defense/security relations with the US is apparently not on Duterte’s mind. He is opting to maintain the Mutual Defense Treaty, no matter that he regards it as unreliable if not useless and even perilous in relation to seeking a peaceful resolution to our dispute with China.

Abrogating the MDT at this time, he seems to think, isn’t a prudent move. But calling for changes in how the treaty is being implemented, – via the VFA and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) – is within the sphere of executive prerogatives he can exercise.

There are at least two somewhat reasonable views expressed from the American side that should encourage Duterte’s bold initiatives.

Vickram Singh, a former senior Pentagon official who handled relations with the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries, now with the Center for American Progress, expressed this assessment:

“I think [President Duterte] is absolutely capable of making American forces leave. When someone like this gets into power, you should expect they will act in the way they’ve acted and the way they said they could act.”

More pointedly, Douglas Maxwell, a retired US Army colonel who commanded US Special Operations Forces (SOF) in the Philippines, now teaching at Georgetown University, gave this counsel:

“Given the sensitivity in the Philippines over American (military) presence, Washington will have to tread carefully and accept that it cannot push down hard to persuade Manila to retain the US SOF. This has to be pull, not push. It has to be the Philippine government that wants support, not us forcing ourselves on the Philippines.”

(The US maintained a Joint Philippine Special Operations Task Force headquarters inside Andrews Air Base in Zamboanga City from 2002 to mid-2015, supervising about 600 US troops on rotational deployment, supposedly to provide advice and training to Filipino troops engaged in the anti-terrorism campaign against the Abu Sayyaf. The Task Force was disbanded after the Mamasapano tragedy, wherein American military advisers and emergency support groups figured. A replacement command took its place, overseeing 100 SOF commandos and 300-500 conventional troops. It’s these troops that Duterte wanted to leave Mindanao, as he ordered the AFP to go on fullscale offensive against the Abu Sayyaf.)

Duterte’s initial short official visits to Indonesia and Vietnam also suggest congruence vis-à-vis the maritime issue. Both governments have made strong assertions against China’s intrusions into their maritime domains – relying on their own military capabilities without calling for support from any foreign power. Vietnam supported the Philippines against China at the UNCLOS-backed Arbitral Tribunal in The Hague. Yet in 2013 Vietnam received $2.17 billion in Chinese foreign direct investments, and Indonesia received $4.65 billion – compared to the $692 million that went to the Philippines.

There are lessons to learn, and benefits to derive, from closer relations with these two neighboring countries.

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

Published in Philippine Star
Oct. 1, 2016

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