After Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ran his mouth yesterday about the upcoming joint drills with U.S. forces being the last, his Foreign Secretary felt compelled to qualify his boss’s outburst:
Visiting Vietnam’s leadership on Thursday, Duterte did not speak to media but his foreign secretary, Perfecto Yasay, said longstanding treaties with the United States would be honored.
He said exercises with U.S. forces planned for 2017 would go ahead, because they were agreed by the previous government, while those from 2018 onwards would be reviewed.
But he said the Philippines did not want a military ally and sought diversified relations and no enemies.
No allies, and no enemies—it’s certainly a nice wish to have, but will be difficult to realize in the Philippines highly pressurized and quarrelsome neighborhood. In practice, this policy means making nice with China, something that’s not lost on the Philippines’ neighbors. Duterte has probably had to finesse his outbursts in private with his Vietnamese counterparts, whom he is visiting today. There have been no public statements yet, but the meeting was closely watched:
“Vietnam was quite enthusiastic about its new-found friend in the Philippines under Aquino, but Duterte’s constant emotional outbursts against Washington has them a bit concerned,” said Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asia specialist at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.
He said Duterte might consult Vietnam’s leaders about how they manage relations with China, the United States, and Japan in what was now “a very complicated environment”.
Vietnam may be also be concerned about how Duterte approaches ties with China and whether that could jeopardize regional efforts to forge a unified position on its maritime activities.
“Vietnam would not want Mr Duterte to strike a deal with China over the South China Sea at the expense of Vietnam and other involved states,” said political analyst Le Hong Hiep.
“The visit can be a timely opportunity for Mr Duterte to explain his South China Sea policy.”
It’s not going to be easy for Duterte to make the Philippines into the Switzerland of the South China Sea.