OPINION: Duterte doubles down on China

Manolo Quezon - The Explainer

Posted at Jan 31 2017 04:25 AM

A contemporary newsreel released at the time Harry S. Truman fired Douglas MacArthur. It gives a brisk but thorough overview of the reasons why he was fired.

If there’s one thing all presidents hate, it’s the impression that they’re not calling the shots on foreign policy. Sunday night saw the country awaiting with baited breath if the President was going to announce martial law in Mindanao. No such announcement came. Instead, the Philippine military establishment got a public slapping disguised as tough talk aimed at America.

With the Secretary of National Defense seated beside him, the President bluntly told the Americans to cease and desist from their plans to upgrade existing and build new facilities on Philippine military bases in fulfillment of the 2014 EDCA. Just four days earlier, the Secretary of National Defense had been widely quoted as saying “EDCA is still on.” While the media had covered the arrival of Japanese naval self-defense forces ships (three, for example, had arrived on January 5), American ships have also been quietly visiting the Philippines: on the same day the Japanese destroyers Inazama and Suzutsuki had arrived in Subic, the USS John Ericsson also made a visit. At the end of last year, four other ships (Pecos, Cesar Chavez, Bowditch and Tippecanoe) had visited Subic.

After a lot of head-scratching over our irrepressible President, it seems that some Americans and Filipinos had come to the conclusion that sobriety in the face of an excitable Filipino chief executive might be the best bet, since China itself would be uneasy about relying too much on our President as an ally. That, or the main irritant in Washington-Manila relations wasn’t America itself, but it’s president; and that, with Obama out of office, a kind of mutual admiration society would develop between the President and his American counterpart, Trump. While an op-ed piece from Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute had proposed, at the height of the President’s verbal assaults on Obama, that America should call the Filipinos’ bluff and just write off Manila, opinion pieces published near the end of the presidential campaign outlined –correctly, as it turned out—the emerging policy of Trump in Southeast Asia: confrontation, anchored on a strong navy which, along with the rest of the American military, would get substantial budget increases to modernize and expand. The conservative Washington Times had even pointed out on January 2, that facilities in Subic were “ready to roll,” if tensions between the USA and China escalated. 

Who knows, perhaps the President, enthralled by the new American president, would find himself warming up to Trump and the two countries could sit down and talk business. After all, Washington, under the new era of the Art of the Deal, was offering one to Manila: we won’t bother you about things that make you peevish, like human rights; but hey, we intend to ramp up our ground game in the Pacific and there are opportunities aplenty for doing deals like hosting our forthcoming big, beautiful navy in places like Subic. 

During congressional hearings on his nomination as Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson stated the view that "We're going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed," referring to tensions in the South China Sea. On the day the US Congress finally confirmed Tillerson’s nomination (about three days after Trump assumed office), press secretary Sean Spicer put the White House imprimatur on those thoughts, though some observers wondered if it was done with a full understanding of the implications.

Quite possibly this is all a case of hoping against hope that Trump will be more prudent in office than he was during the campaign. But as his many other controversial, polarizing actions demonstrate, he seems fully engaged in carrying out what he promised during the campaign. 

Within a week of entering office, Trump did announce his intention to pursue budget increases for the American armed forces and his dream of a big, beautiful navy of 350 ships (previously it was expected to have 308 by 2021). As Trump briskly signs executive orders and checks off promises in his platform of government, all signs point to a confrontational approach towards China and a patching up of relations with antsy American allies like Tokyo and Seoul. 

Tokyo, uncertain about American intentions towards itself and the region, has tried to butter up the President to limit the attraction of Beijing and be an honest broker between Washington and Manila, in hope of firming up the alliances carefully, and painstakingly built up over the years to contain China. The problem for Tokyo, of course, is the President. No one can accuse Prime Minister Abe of Japan of being timid in playing the diplomatic game, and his aim was to charm our President out of his lair and hopefully out of the arms of Beijing.  

But when you bet big, you can lose big. Abe went to Davao, proclaimed Duterte-san, ichiban! --and was humiliated for his trouble. 

Overlooked in the Philippine media –even as it was reported—was the President’s blurting out that Japanese Prime Minister Abe had offered missiles to the Philippines (much to the official annoyance of China) and that he had rejected the offer (much to the delight of Beijing, see below).  

The media reported what the President said; but the media did not comment on what the President’s blurting out meant. It wasn’t just a violation of a cardinal rule of statesmanship (do not reveal offers, particularly if you declined them, if only to save face for the one who made the offer, but also as a matter of trust between yourself and the leader who just paid you a visit). It was, wittingly, or unwittingly (and one cannot discount the possibility, however tiny, that the disclosure was made with at least a little bit of malicious glee) a propaganda gift to China. 

The Global Times of China, which is the state organ to watch to get the pulse of the hardliners in Beijing, thundered on January 19, “The hypocrite Abe tried to sell the missile deal to Duterte who said his country doesn't need missiles for a World War III. After Duterte took office, he abandoned Aquino III's foreign policy that made the Philippines a pawn that the US and Japan is using against China, since he has realized that the Philippines could gain no benefits from such a policy. But Duterte will not totally break up with the US, he will maintain good relations with the US, Japan, as well as China in a bid to practice the "balance of power" strategy to safeguard the Philippine's own interest.” It confidently announced that, “As a rational political leader, Duterte will not yield to Tokyo for the sake of the money Tokyo offered. He will not develop relations with Japan and the US at the cost of the China-Philippine relationship.” 

So Manila hands Beijing a propaganda coup because of the President’s bragging which wasn’t just terrible diplomacy but simply bad politics. You can be sure what happened next behind the gilded screens of the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo: the Philippine ambassador was summoned, and given what is known as a dressing-down. The only question is if it happened over one, two, or more days, depending on how offended the Japanese were. 

In the larger scale of things, of course, Tokyo has larger problems to consider, though the Tokyo and Seoul visits of Defense Secretary James Mattis suggests clarity is coming vis-à-vis these countries and Washington. Both Seoul and Tokyo are of course, concerned over North Korea, but Tokyo, at least, worries, too, about the South China Sea. During his confirmation hearings Mattis was less hawkish than Tillerson but still firm: “I believe allies contribute greatly to deterrence and modifying the behavior or misbehavior of those who would disrupt the global order.”

Here, the President’s Sunday late night press conference –wittingly or unwittingly, but the timing was no coincidence since in he told the media that he had been watching TV (something to do, he cryptically said, with downtime due to some sort of immune problem)—closes our circle. 

The President thundered and growled, and it is interesting what tidbits Beijing decided to quote: “Here is my worry. They (The Americans) are making depots, they are unloading arms in the Philippines now, in Palawan, Cagayan de Oro and Pampanga… I am serving notice to the Armed Forces of the U.S.: Do not do it. I will not allow it… a depot by any other name is a depot ... It is prohibited under the law. It's not allowed by the treaty… I won't allow that. You place us all in danger.” 

Equally interesting is what Tokyo decided to quote. Aside from everything Beijing quoted, Tokyo added, “I do not even know if there is a nuclear tip (missile) now, that they are unloading,” and that, if America persisted, he would take another look at EDCA “and maybe ultimately abrogate, since it is an executive order.” Other presidential quotes were, “You are egging us . . . egging us (on) to force the issue of arbitral judgment,” referring to the Americans, adding that, “The missiles of China are pointed at the American expeditions… A depot would serve as a supply line.” 

Tokyo (or to be precise, the Japan Times) further reported that the President had an “urgent” message to Beijing: give us precision-guided missiles for the armed forces to use against ISIS-affiliated terrorists in Mindanao. The story ended with a final quote from the President: “I made a commitment to President Xi Jinping, I made a solemn commitment that we will talk about this arbitral award during my term. When, I really do not know, but we will talk hard.”

People who still insist the President is playing a fine game –engaging in a highwire act with a statesmanlike focus on balancing competing regional interests in the hope of getting the most out of the rivalry of superpowers—ought to reconsider. Beijing was right; Tokyo has been burned, and the reporting by Japanese media suggests they fully understand the President has cast his lot with Beijing (you turn down Japanese missiles but ask for rockets from China); Washington was wrong, and the result was the public slapping of our military establishment late Sunday night. 

If Abe bet big and got burned, the President is betting more bigly, to use Trumpspeak. Will Washington notice? The President’s press conference removed the essential to a high-wire act: a sense of balance.

If there is one thing that sets a great power apart from ordinary countries, it’s the resilience of institutional planning. Policies might change but options are carefully built up to enable adjusting to those policies. Case in point is this extract from an article by David Vine in 2012: “In the Philippines, whose government evicted the U.S. from the massive Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base in the early 1990s, as many as 600 special forces troops have quietly been operating in the country’s south since January 2002. Last month, the two governments reached an agreement on the future U.S. use of Clark and Subic, as well as other repair and supply hubs from the Vietnam War era. In a sign of changing times, U.S. officials even signed a 2011 defense agreement with former enemy Vietnam and have begun negotiations over the Navy’s increased use of Vietnamese ports.”

That is what the Cato Institute meant when it said Washington can –and should—call Manila’s bluff. Hanoi is waiting. But that ignores the particular nuances of the Trump administration’s positioning on Beijing, which I explored last November at length (I also looked at Beijing, Moscow, and Tokyo, around that time). Here, Manila might represent a challenge: to wine and dine, or to slap down? Or, ignore?  

After all, guess who corrected the President, after it was publicly slapped down? Why, the armed forces itself which announced, No, the United States is not unloading arms in Palawan, Cagayan de Oro, Pampanga. But they had –and have—stored “generators, vehicles, rubber boats, and shelter materials such as tents, and water purifiers.” 

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.