As previously stated, this blog is meant to give some non-experts a venue to at least try and make some sense out of complicated issues from the perspective of someone without so many stakes in the issue that they lose objectivity. I’m gonna give it my best shot. My area of expertise is the colonial Philippines, so about 500 years removed from what we’re dealing with now. But when I try and wrap my head around something as complex and long-running as the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea controversy, it’s like watching a rehash episode from a show that’s long since jumped the shark. In this instance, Beijing has decided to plant the issue squarely in the past by attempted to reduce it all to a single nine-dash map.
Now here we are in 2016, almost 2017. Seven months ago, Rodrigo Duterte (known to many Western readers through articles like this one from the New York Times) was elected president. Digging deeper on that subject, you may have found John Oliver describing him as “the Trump of the East”. It’s a glib comparison, which is probably why it kept getting made, and apparently they at least see eye-to-eye on murdering drug addicts and cursing out other world figures. But really, a Trump comparison arguably falls short unless the president-elect has also admitted to personally participating in vigilante murders, ostensibly to show the local Davao City cops how it’s done.
I was starting to wonder if the Donald was just going down a Wikipedia-esque list of “controversial countries” and Malacañang was just his next phone call after scratching off Pakistan and Taiwan. At least that’s what I would wonder if there wasn’t a Trump condo complex currently under construction in Makati, and the man in charge (Jose E.B. Antonio) hadn’t just been named special envoy to the US. Also, thanks to the last thousand years or so of China-Philippines relations, a trade war against the one will undoubtedly affect the other (really, just read that whole Eichenwald article). Historically speaking, the Philippines was the center of a trade route that stretched from Indonesia to China, with branches that extended all the way to Madagascar, Egypt, Persia, and India. Now it does also make me wonder what Trump development projects might be planned for Pakistan, but that’s a different subject.
Now one of the first things touted as a big victory for the new Philippine president was the Hague’s ruling rejecting China’s claims to the Spratly Islands in favor of the Philippines. After stating that he would ride out on a jet ski and retake the Kalayaan Islands (in the West Philippine Sea, to further the Philippine-centric geographic rebrandings) from the Chinese navy, post-election Duterte pulled away from his predecessor’s rhetoric instead of doubling down as he previously did. But the problem isn’t really the words, even after calling it all hyperbole in an interview with Al Jazeera. The problem is that the Hague ruling and statements about not letting the islands go are only as good as the ability to back them up. This is where the US Pacific pivot comes in.
Leading up to Duterte’s election, the US Navy was busy moving warships into the South China Sea to counter perceived Chinese aggression in the region, primarily based around the USS Ronald Reagan’s Carrier Strike Group 5. By now, though, we know this aggression is not just perceived. China has started putting up CIWS and missile installations on the islands they constructed on top of coral reefs; artificial islands that the Hague already ruled to be illegal and not an extension of China’s exclusive economic zone. On top of that, there’s also the recent and “unpresidented” seizure of a US drone submarine by a Chinese naval vessel either about 50 or about 100 miles northwest of Subic Bay, which still puts this well within sovereign Philippine territory (extending 200 nautical miles from shore) despite claims that it was in international waters. Given that this Chinese ship would’ve been around 400 miles from both the Paracels and the Spratlys, the two main groups of contested islands in the region, one wonders just what it thought it was doing so close to the Philippine coast if not looking for trouble.
What we’ve also got is a Duterte who’s seemingly more willing to ally himself with communists than the communists are to ally with him, and you have to ask yourself what each of these groups has to gain from entering into these kinds of relationships. In the case of China, it’s clear that local development firms are set to make an awful lot of money in exclusive construction contracts, some of which are being given to companies formerly or currently blacklisted by the World Bank for corruption (see links here so I don’t just rehash the whole post). They also get the pleasure of irritating the United States, since Duterte has been trying to use the threat of deeper relations with Beijing like he was leveraging one third of a love triangle into giving them what he wants. In this case, what he wants is space to pursue his war on drug users and political enemies without international oversight.
Honestly, I’m reminded a lot of the current president-elect’s ideas on Russia. A little over four years ago, that GOP nominee was adamant that Moscow was our greatest geopolitical foe and now we’re in a situation where the CIA is concluding that Russia actively worked toward a Trump victory. We’ve been treated to Republican adoration of Vladimir Putin before and since election day, and I can’t help but connect this to the kind of action-hero posturing Duterte presented against China as well, which was then quickly discarded after being sworn in.
But making this into only a case of opposites working within distinct geopolitical spheres obscures the fact that US-Philippine relations are at the center of what’s looking to be US attempts to maintain Pacific hegemony, with China and Russia both trying to peel off allies while not joining together. And though it’s logical for Duterte to continue trying to play both the US and China against each other for his own benefit, only one is coming at the issue with any intent to respect the Hague court’s ruling on Philippine sovereign waters, and that with the military means to enforce it. On the other hand, Duterte’s repeated claims that the country’s communists would die and kill for him in a hypothetical civil war against “the yellows” (recently ousted Liberal Party) got shot down almost immediately by militant representatives in the House. This should be taken with a grain of salt (or really fish sauce, which is always a nice substitute) since the speaker here is the only member of his Act Teachers Party in the House right now, plus it’s tough for me to say how many other militants like the NPA would see his statement as binding.
The juicier scuttlebutt floating around the internet these days is that Duterte has a history of Fentanyl abuse, ostensibly for migraines and back pain, which gives a different flavor to his wondering aloud if he’ll live to finish out the other five and a half years remaining in his one-and-only constitutionally allowed term. On top of all this, Manila just recently cancelled a planned visit from a UN inspector meant to report on deaths related to his war on drugs. It’s looking like a tough slog to push against this wave of top-down vigilantism, especially with the US president-elect already signalling that continuing opposition to extrajudicial killings is off the table.
To try and sum all this up, the true test of US-Philippine (or really Trump-Duterte) relations in the future could be the continuance of aid funding, which the Obama administration just recently cut by over $430 million over concerns related to extrajudicial killings. Between the Makati condo complex and Trump’s talk of hitting China in the pocketbook, the Philippines seemingly has more to gain from playing to the president-elect’s business interests than in making any changes to the very literal war on drugs. As for what effects future US policy on China could have on the country, Duterte at least seems to satisfy himself with being a side player for whoever is more willing to look the other way.