Just how far can the new friendship between China and the Philippines go?

Donald Kirk says while Filipinos have good reason to strike a deal with the Chinese, a key question remains: can Beijing provide the military aid the US has been giving Manila, and at what price?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2016, 11:38am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2016, 8:33pm

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has confounded strategists in Washington by appearing to disavow the historic Philippine-American alliance, aligning with China while tossing out agreements with the United States.

If his declarations are puzzling, however, they should not be all that hard to understand. Beneath the show of nationalist pride that Duterte is expressing lies a certain common sense. After all, is the US, despite its much publicised “pivot” to Asia, willing to risk an armed clash with China in the South China Sea?

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Yes, the US has shown the flag in those disputed waters by sending warships near the Spratly Islands where the Chinese have built a military base. American flag-waving demonstrates the view that the South China Sea is open to vessels of all countries and that China has grossly violated international law, as the Permanent Court of Arbitration agreed in July.

That ruling, however, was not so much a defeat for China, which had said the court had no jurisdiction, as a challenge to the Philippines and the US to enforce it. Nobody imagined that Duterte’s predecessor as president, Benigno Aquino, could do anything militarily, but what about the US, which vigorously supported the decision? Duterte, by siding with China during his recent visit to Beijing, including a summit with President Xi Jinping (習近平), left no doubt that the ruling had little meaning.

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The reality is simple. The US might periodically show its colours, but there’s no way it is going to go to war in the Spratlys on behalf of the Philippines or any of the other claimants, including Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. Nor, for that matter, is the US remotely interested in battling the Chinese with regard to Scarborough shoal, the rocky outcrop within Philippine territorial waters.

The US might periodically show its colours, but there’s no way it is going to go to war in the Spratlys on behalf of the Philippines

Clearly, if the Philippines is to get anywhere in regaining the right of its fishermen to trawl the waters around Scarborough shoal, Duterte needs a deal with China. Surely any agreement under which the Philippines yields territory to China will be humiliating, but how else, short of war, can Duterte win concessions that might be beneficial to Philippine fishermen? Beyond that question looms the issue of US-Philippine defence arrangements.

At stake is the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement, reached in 2014, under which the Philippines agreed the US might use its bases for the first time since the closure in the early 1990s of Clark Air Base at Angeles City, north of Manila, and of the naval base on Subic Bay on the South China Sea, northwest of the capital. US forces would rotate in and out of the Philippine bases.

Now, in the aftermath of Duterte’s visit to Beijing, the future of the entire US-Philippine alliance is up in the air. Duterte did say that he did not mean to “sever” relations with the US when he spoke of “separation” from the Philippines, but obviously he does not see the US as capable or committed to guaranteeing security against the rising power of China.

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For their part, the Chinese are promising aid and trade agreements that may help build up the Philippines’ terrible infrastructure. These deals are contingent on the Philippines reducing ties with the US and Japan, enormous trading partners and investors that together account for more trade with the Philippines than China does.

The US has for years been providing aid and advice for Philippine armed forces, still pitifully weak. The question remains whether the Philippine military, riddled with inefficiency and corruption, can wage war successfully against Communist and Islamic guerillas.

What might China do to assist instead of the US? Considering the legacy of US-Philippine friendship, the Chinese may have difficulty replacing the Americans as military advisers and aid-givers. If China does provide massive aid, Filipinos, wary of the economic grip of a powerful Chinese minority, might well fear subjugation or subservience to China.

That’s not the result which Duterte was looking for when he declared the Philippines’ independent policy of “separation” from the US.

Journalist Donald Kirk is the author of Philippines in Crisis: US Power Versus Local Revolt, and Looted: The Philippines After the Bases