Philippines | Why the Philippines' pivot from the US to China is unusual

Why the Philippines’ pivot from the US to China is unusual

Xuan Loc Doan October 19, 2016 4:17 PM (UTC+8)
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On October 2, Vietnam discreetly welcomed a landmark visit by United States Navy’s submarine tender USS Frank Cable and guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain, to its Cam Ranh Bay. This was the first time American warships had docked at Vietnam’s deep-water South China Sea base, one of the region’s most strategic ports, since the two former battlefield foes normalized relations in 1995.

On the exact day, across the South China Sea, Philippine President Rodrigo R. Duterte loudly threatened to cancel the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), a key defense agreement with the US that his country just signed two years ago, and to expel all American troops from the archipelago nations.

These, together with many other recent developments, reveal remarkable – and surprising – differences between the two Southeast Asian nations with regard to their relations with the US and foreign policy in general.

Both the countries had painful experiences in their respective encounter with the US. The Philippines was colonized by America while Vietnam endured a long deadly war with the latter.

However, only a few years after gaining independence, the Philippines forged a close relationship with its past colonizer, which was anchored on the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. The Philippines-US alliance was strengthened by other later agreements, including the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement and the 2014 EDCA. With all of these, though testy at times, the two nations became each other’s longest and most important ally in Southeast Asia.

In contrast, Vietnam and the US could not manage to establish diplomatic ties until two decades after the end of the war. Furthermore, unlike the Philippines-US relationship, despite their diplomatic normalization, the communist-ruled state and the US, regarded as the leader of the free world, remain fundamentally on the opposite side of the political/ideological continuum.

Yet, while Vietnam has gradually and steadily strengthened its ties with the US since 1995, under Duterte’s rule, the Philippines’s 65-year alliance with the latter has abruptly and radically deteriorated.

Different views

A poll by Pew Research Center in 2015 found that 78% of Vietnamese respondents were positive about the US. This might have surprised some because Vietnam had to fight a brutal war against America. However, judging by the warm and rapturous reception they accorded to President Barack Obama during his first Vietnam visit in May, it was no surprise to learn that majority of the Vietnamese viewed the US favorably.

Not only the Vietnamese public, but also the country’s communist cadres and leaders have increasingly changed their attitude toward the US, becoming warmer and friendlier in their interaction with American officials and leaders. Top Vietnamese leaders, including Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, have already been to Washington. President Obama was cordially received by the Vietnamese leadership during his May trip.

According to the same Pew poll in 2015, 92% of Filipinos held a positive of the US, the highest of any of the 40 nations surveyed.

However, unlike his own people, Mr. Duterte is “not a fan of America”. He has made numerous jibes against the US since taking office on June 30.

Given his tough-talking style, it is not completely shocking that the maverick president is blunt in some of his remarks.

Yet, his outbursts against the US – e.g. vulgarly insulting President Obama, publicly threatening to “break up with America” and “would rather go to Russia or to China” or vividly evoking misdeeds committed by the latter during its colonial rule in the Philippines – reveal that he deeply distrusts and dislikes the US.

One of the reasons for his anti-American sentiment can be that, unlike his many other predecessors, he has a strong nationalist/leftist tendency.

Another is his view that his country’s alliance with the US has not brought about benefits. This was bluntly expressed by his Foreign Affairs Secretary, in a statement distributed by the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs on Oct. 5 entitled “America has failed us”.

Unlike ad lib remarks by his ‘colorful’ president, the statement by Mr. Perfecto Yasay, the Philippines’ top diplomat, must be a carefully worded one as it bore “the core of the message of PRRD [President Rodrigo R. Duterte] to the American people and the world.” As such, Mr. Yasay’s statement, which is undoubtedly the Duterte government’s strongest criticism yet of the US, genuinely conveys Manila’s view of American and US-Philippines relations.

Such a posture is very different from the Vietnamese government’s attitude toward Washington and US-Vietnam ties.

As an authoritarian regime, Hanoi is often criticized by the US, the European Union (EU) and the UN for its human rights abuses. However, instead of responding by publicly insulting them or threatening to cut ties with them, it simply rebuffs their criticisms or/and privately pledges and seeks to improve its human rights records.

A key reason why Vietnamese authorities do not react in a Duterte-like manner is that they know maintaining friendly and working relations with these chief international partners, notably the US, the world’s most powerful economy and military, is vital for their country’s development, prosperity and security.

With such knowledge, Hanoi has tried to set aside or overcome past animosities and current ideological/political differences with Washington to forge closer and stronger ties. Thanks to this pragmatic approach, Vietnam’s cooperation with the US has remarkably advanced since 1995.

As noted by Nguyen Phu Trong during his maiden American trip in July 2015, which was also the first to the US by a Vietnamese Communist chief, the US and Vietnam “have been transformed from former enemies to become friends, partners — comprehensive partners.” He was also convinced that this “relationship will continue to grow in the future.”

Indeed, though it remains a ‘comprehensive’ partner – ranking behind Vietnam’s other ‘strategic’ or ‘comprehensive strategic’ or ‘comprehensive strategic cooperative’ partners in Hanoi’s diplomatic lexis – the US has now become a top partner of Vietnam.

For instance, the two-way trade between the two countries rose from merely US$200 million in 1995 to US$43.5 billion in 2015. Whilst it is still trailing far behind Vietnam-China bilateral trade ($66.3 billion), with its export to the US worth $33.5 billion in 2015, the US has become Vietnam’s biggest export market.

At the security and defense level, Vietnam-US ties have gradually matured. In 2011, Washington and Hanoi signed a Memorandum of Understanding for Advancing Bilateral Defense Cooperation, which outlined key areas of cooperation. Four years later, they upgraded their defense ties by agreeing a Joint Vision Statement on Defense Relations.

The recent port calls by the US warships at the Cam Ranh Bay were seen as part of the Naval Engagement Activity (NEA).

According to the US Navy’s Pacific Command, the NEA program was “designed to foster mutual understanding, build confidence in the maritime domain and strengthen relationships the US Navy, Vietnam People’s Navy and the local community.”

It “has evolved from annual port visits to Da Nang by US Navy ships […] to a multi-day bilateral naval engagement both ashore and at sea. Each year the engagement becomes more complex, and last year marked the first time a littoral combat ship.”

The NEA scheme, which started more than a decade ago, and the American warship visit in particular reflect both the advancement of Vietnam’s defense relations with the US and Hanoi’s willingness to enhance cooperation with Washington in this area.

Though it was not explicitly said, the warship visit and the NEA scheme were seen as forming part of the efforts by Hanoi to boost security and defense cooperation with Washington to counter China’s maritime ambition.

In fact, its concerns over China’s intention and behavior in the South China Sea are the key reason why while seeking to maintain a friendly relationship with its giant neighbors, Vietnam has also stepped up its cooperation with major regional and global powers. Chief among these is the US.

Against this backdrop, it is quite odd that Mr. Duterte has publicly announced that he would “break up with America”  and “open new alliances with Russia and China”.

An unusual and risky approach? 

While it is understandable that the Philippines needs to be less dependent on its American ally and to revive its frayed ties with China, its neighboring superpower, from a Vietnamese, and even regional, perspective Duterte’s volte-face shift from Washington to Beijing is unusual, if not incomprehensible, for a number of reasons.

First, like Vietnam, the Philippines is small and weak compared with China in terms of military capabilities, and still intractably locked in disputes with its neighboring giant over the South China Sea. Until recently, Manila was among the most vocal critics of China’s expansionist claims and aggressive actions in the disputed sea.

Second, due to maritime disputes and geopolitical rivalries, the region is faced with huge uncertainty and volatility. Given this, with few exceptions (e.g. Cambodia, which has apparently tilted toward Beijing), almost all ASEAN members, have sought to maintain balanced relations with – or adopted an ambivalent posture vis-à-vis – the US and China because they know it is ill-advised to put their eggs in one basket.

By breaking up with Washington and going to Beijing, instead of pursuing an independent – or more exactly balanced – foreign policy, Manila, intentionally or unintentionally, enters a new dependent or imbalanced one. The difference is that if under Mr. Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, the Philippines depended too much on the US and distanced from China, it is now following the completely opposing directions.

Third, Duterte’s claim that he wanted to split up with the US and would rather go to China and Russia because these countries “have respect for the people” somehow sounds ironic.

For many people, by vehemently rejecting the South China Sea case considered by an arbitral tribunal established under UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which the Philippines had initiated, fought very hard over more than three years and eventually won overwhelmingly, China has disrespected not only international arbitration and law but also the Philippines’ legitimate claims.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has openly backed China’s South China Sea position, i.e. not to recognize the arbitral tribunal’s July ruling.

Fourth, that Mr. Duterte has publicly humiliated and threatened to break up with the US and praised and embraced China, while being unsure of Beijing’s intention is also unwise.

During his China visit, Chinese leaders may offer his country a lot of financial assistance and investment – in return for his abrupt pivot from Washington to Beijing. Yet, it is unlikely that they will make any major concessions on the South China Sea issue.

What could he do should Beijing not respect fully – or even partly – the international arbitral tribunal’s July ruling that resoundingly backed his country’s maritime claims against China?

The Duterte government is very bold to assert that it “will never allow China or any other nation to bully us or deal with Philippine interests under another carrot and stick policy.”

However, given its huge power asymmetries, it could be very difficult – if not impossible – for the Philippines to deal with China on its own should the latter not accept its demand, without international support and pressure.

A powerful and legitimate means that his country has and should use to deal with its mighty neighbor is international law and pressure. Yet, it seems that Duterte’s ill-tempered, erratic behavior and his deadly anti-drug campaign have alienated the US, the UN, the EU, other international organizations and international public opinion in general.

This – coupled with his decision to opt for bilateral talks on the maritime disputes, an approach strongly insisted by China, rather than multilateral discussions favored by other countries – has significantly weakened the Philippines’ bargaining position.

If he fails to reach an acceptable deal with Beijing, it is probable that he will face not only backlash at home but also upheaval to win back trust from his country’s traditional international allies, notably the US. This is because he has already announced that he “is about to cross the Rubicon”, i.e. pass a point of no return, in his personal and official relations with Washington.

Xuan Loc Doan
Dr. Xuan Loc Doan is a UK-based researcher. He holds a PhD in International Relations and researches and writes on a number of areas. These include Vietnam’s domestic and foreign policy, ASEAN, EU, UK’s politics and international politics in the Asia-Pacific region.
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