The Philippines' Diplomatic Tango
United Daily News Editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
October 22, 2016
Executive Summary: Diplomacy is like the tango. It involves steps to the rear and steps to the front. One must go with the flow. Duterte's diplomatic tango has enabled the Philippines to free itself from the clutches of nationalism and US influence. It has successfully positioned itself between two major powers, the United States and China. It has achieved the greatest possible gains in the Philippines' national interest. By contrast, Tsai Ing-wen's cross-Strait policy remains mired in controversy over the 1992 Consensus. Its only answer has been to cling to the United States and Japan, while trumpeting a flashy but hollow New Southern Strategy, merely to defy the Mainland. Contrast Duterte's pragmatic and balanced policy, with the folly of Tsai Ing-wen's rigid and obtuse policy, which has led to a deadlock in the Taiwan Strait.
Full Text Below:
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte arrived in Mainland China in a far-reaching move to become “closer with China, and farther from America”. This was Duterte's first state visit after taking office. His first stop was Mainland China, clearly revealing his priorities. Five months ago, China and the Philippines were mired in the South China Sea arbitration case. Upon taking office, Duterte immediately changed the tone of the relationship, showing us how swiftly the Philippines could change its diplomatic stance.
Ice three feet thick is never the result of an overnight freeze. The Philippines has wanted to free itself from the clutches of the United States for some time. In the past however, it was trapped in America's strategic net, and unable to break free. When Duterte came to power, under the banner of populist reform, he saw the benefits that an economically rising Mainland China could bring to his nation. Naturally he was moved.
Duterte's visit is generally seen as the Philippines desire to distance itself from the United States and move closer to Mainland China. But at a deeper level, it is merely the result of the Philippines' quest for diplomatic independence.
In 1946, the Philippines gained its independence from the United States. Nevertheless the spectre of US influence hung over the Philippines. They Americans may have left, but they kept a large number of military bases. They continued using the Philippines as a forward outpost in the US-Soviet Cold War. The United States also cultivated a large number of pro-US politicians in the Philippines, who controlled Philippine politics. Most of the families were educated in the United States, and made the Philippines the ideal mouthpiece for the United States in Asia.
Upon first achieving independence, Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base became the chief source of economic and foreign exchange earnings for the Philippines. But over-reliance on US military consumption made the Philippines miss the East Asian economic express train during the 1980s. As a result, it remains backwards even today. With the end of the Cold War in 1990, the strategic value of the Philippines plummeted, and the US military withdrew, causing the nation's economy to collapse. Filipinos remember this clearly.
Five years ago, then President Aquino III attempted to shift attention away from domestic economic troubles. He attempted to catch the United States' “Pivot to Asia” express train. On the one hand, he incited nationalist fervor. On the other hand he sought United States backing on the front lines. He appealed the South China Sea case in the International Court of Arbitration. He worked hand in glove with the Japan military. He clashed with China on Huangyan Island. These moves brought Sino-Philippine relations to new lows.
The Philippine's may have won the South China Sea arbitration case. But its economy remained mired in recession. By contrast, other Southeast Asian nations have taken advantage of Mainland Chinese capital to carry out various infrastructure projects. The Philippines meanwhile, lost out on the Chinese economic dividend. This was when Duterte, a man who lacked nepotistic US backing, came to power. Duterte was determined to change the Philippines' lop-sided policy toward the United States, and adopt a more balanced foreign policy, one that would enable the Philippines to benefit from China's economic dividend, even as it remained under the US military umbrella.
Duterte may be an enfant terrible, but he is also a pragmatic politician. He knows the realities of geopolitics. He knows that the Philippines must make friends with its neighbor China. He knows the Philippines must not expect too much from America, situated as it is on the opposite shore of the Pacific Ocean. He understands American political realities. He knows the Philippines has only two warplanes. It cannot possibly wage war against China, which has 3000 warplanes. He is also a believer in capitalism. He knows that only the Chinese people will help the Philippines develop its economy. The Philippines was abandoned by the Americans in the past. This remains etched deeply in Filipinos' memories.
Duterte's visit to Mainland China, is akin to an ocean liner changing directions. In fact, relations between Mainland China and the Philippines have yet to take shape. Duterte's independent foreign policy remains under the influence of two factors, one domestic and one foreign. The first factor is political pressure from the United States. The US may not be happy with Duterte's pro-China policy, but it is pre-occupied with the presidential election and has no time to deal with him. Once the new government has been decided next year, the US may increase pressure on the Philippines, especially if Clinton, who preaches a "repivot to Asia" takes office.
The second factor is a nationalist backlash from inside the Philippines. Duterte's power is based on regional support from a majority of the public. He is relying on the popularity of his war on drugs and war on corruption, to silence the pro-American political dynasties that despise him. If his popular support collapses, a nationalist backlash will swiftly emerge.
Diplomacy is like the tango. It involves steps to the rear and steps to the front. One must go with the flow. Duterte's diplomatic tango has enabled the Philippines to free itself from the clutches of nationalism and US influence. It has successfully positioned itself between two major powers, the United States and China. It has achieved the greatest possible gains in the Philippines' national interest. By contrast, Tsai Ing-wen's cross-Strait policy remains mired in controversy over the 1992 Consensus. Its only answer has been to cling to the United States and Japan, while trumpeting a flashy but hollow New Southern Strategy, merely to defy the Mainland. Contrast Duterte's pragmatic and balanced policy, with the folly of Tsai Ing-wen's rigid and obtuse policy, which has led to a deadlock in the Taiwan Strait.