Could the Philippines fall victim to a US-China proxy conflict?

  • Mark J. Valencia says with Beijing and Washington stepping up their struggle for influence in the region, a bitter debate on how Manila should respond is polarising the political classes and stirring up old rivalries
PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 December, 2018, 10:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 December, 2018, 11:41am

There is an intensifying and increasingly shrill debate as to whether the US and China are on the brink of a new kind of cold war. Those who say they’re not cite one major difference between their rivalry and that of the US and Soviet Union in the cold war: the US-China struggle has not manifested itself in proxy conflicts. Others say “perhaps not yet”, but that it is sowing the seeds of proxy conflicts between and within some states.

They point out that China and the US are increasingly vying for influence in several countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, in contexts that could eventually lead to violent domestic conflict. The Philippines is a good example.

Philippine domestic politics is increasingly racked by a polarising debate over its policy towards China, particularly its claims in the South China Sea. The Philippines, under the administration of then president Benigno Aquino, brought the question of the legality of China’s jurisdictional claims in the South China Sea before an international arbitration panel. In July 2016, the panel ruled overwhelmingly in the Philippines’ favour.

But then, newly elected Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte abruptly pivoted foreign policy away from the US and towards China. He did not try to take immediate advantage of the panel’s ruling and instead forged a positive relationship with China, gaining Beijing’s cooperation and the possibility of economic largesse.

But this policy shift outraged international and domestic legal idealists as well as Philippine Americanophiles, sparking bitter opposition. This has resulted in a major domestic political struggle between factions favouring preferential relations with one or the other country.

Filipino-American ties run deep and wide. The Philippines is a US ally by virtue of a 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty and harbours US military troops and assets.

In America, there is growing concern that Duterte’s volte-face marked a tipping point in the decline of US soft power

But Philippine pride and patriotism still permeate the political psyche. There is lingering resentment among some elite regarding US treatment of Filipinos and their culture during its nearly 50 years of colonial rule.

China has made remarkable political inroads since Duterte’s election. It has responded to Duterte’s “friendliness” by stepping up its trade, aid and foreign investment, particularly for Duterte’s favoured infrastructure projects. Although the US and Duterte’s opposition warn of a China debt trap that could undermine Philippine sovereignty and independence, China’s foreign investment is still small compared to that from Japan and the US.

China also gained an advantage with Duterte when the US criticised his extrajudicial war on drugs, enraging the Philippine government. China tacitly supported the effort. The historic visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping in November and an agreement to seek a deal on joint development in areas claimed by both are, in Xi’s view, like “a rainbow after the rain” regarding China-Philippine relations.

China’s successes have stimulated a renewed effort by the US and its Philippine sympathisers to preserve what is left of the US soft power advantage there.

Indeed, in America, there is growing concern that Duterte’s volte-face marked a tipping point in the decline of US soft power influence on Asia. Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, concluded that Duterte’s renovated foreign policy “is a potential disaster” because “China could either neutralise this vital American ally, or even potentially turn the Philippines into a PLA Navy base”.

As Beijing and Manila agree on energy deal, Filipino backlash begins

Last month, Patrick Cronin and Richard Javad Heydarian published a piece in The National Interest arguing that Trump and Duterte have “obscured the true significance of the US-Philippines bilateral alliance”. Their views are typical of US conservatives and reflect in part a neocolonial perspective on the history of US-Philippines relations, and in part a refusal to recognise reality.

They extol the Philippines as “the most pro-American nation on Earth”, seemingly confirming that they approve of and want to maintain the Philippines’ subservient position in the relationship.

But Duterte and his supporters defy this perspective. Recently, Duterte reportedly said the Philippines’ mutual defence treaty with the US is what keeps it from “telling the Western superpower to stay away”. He also said that “the threat of confrontation and trouble in the waterway came from outside the region”, meaning primarily the US.

In his latest take on the China-Philippines relationship, Heydarian seems to think that Xi’s visit to the Philippines – and indeed, Duterte’s policy of rapprochement with China – has been a failure.

He postulates that the “fear of political backlash in the Philippines, where large numbers are opposed to any resource-sharing agreement with China”, contributed to the failure to reach a concrete agreement to move ahead with joint development. He also highlights the Philippine military’s scepticism of China’s intentions and its resistance to “Duterte’s efforts to dilute military ties with the US”.

The winners and losers in Duterte’s China play

But this is only one side of the story. Another faction of the politically aware think that in pursuing a more neutral foreign policy, the democratically elected president has made the right choice for the country and its long-suffering poor.

In sum, the Philippine political elite is sharply divided on Duterte’s foreign policy vis-à-vis China and the US. This has provided opportunity for both to become involved in Philippine domestic politics, directly or indirectly, supporting different factions. This dichotomy could lead to violent internal conflict.

Moreover, the Philippines may be only one of many countries in Southeast Asia and elsewhere where domestic politics become influenced and then inflamed by the US-China struggle.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China