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Asia's Game of Thrones
Duterte’s Delicate Balancing Act

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.

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  • Dhako

    I see the finest brain-trust of the TIA still believe that the Philippine can be cajole or even bribe to be a “glorified” member of the coalition of the willing against China, when Mr Duterte even went out of his way to say, he has no desire to be the first casualty of China’s approach in this region at the behest of US’s pivot.

    Furthermore, maybe you lot have had a difficult time in deciphering his real “strategical tilt” of this President. But let me help you in here and say, in so far as Mr Duterte is concern, the US game of roping the Philippines into a needless fight against China is over. And he seems to be telegraphing this in as crudely as possible, in the hope that even the most meanest intellect in the Belt-way’s strategical theoreticians community wouldn’t failed to notice the sea-change he has embark on.

    Furthermore, it would be better, for the US start reading the tea-leaves in this region and understand that in so far as the countries in the South China Sea are concern, there is no gullible fools to be had among them, who would mortgage their destiny on so flimsy of an argument call the US’s Pivot on Asia.

    And in fact, the more the Chinese state makes the choice facing the nations of this region in the manner that could be akin to what Mr Bush Jnr have told the world at the eve of the his War on Terror back in 2001, which was that you are either with us or with the enemy, which means, China will say to these states, that you are either with us or you are with US’s agenda of ganging up on China, the quicker these states will retreat from any “Strategical dalliance” with US, particularly if it has any semblance of possible confrontation with China,

    And Mr Duterte is just the first leader who would be so “street-level-crude” to advertise his nation’s retreat from any possible dalliance with the US. But others will follow soon in a rather polite way. But still the outcome will be the same across the South China Sea.

    • Tom

      Fact: The Chinese are closer, which makes the nations of the region more suspicious of them.
      Fact: China is more aggressive than the US in this region
      Fact: You work for Beijing.

  • Kevin

    Switzerland built their neutrality on half a millennium long military reputation combined with a modern reputation of economic efficiency and fiscal probity. You have to pay your dues before you get treated like the Swiss.

    • Josephbleau

      Hate to be unkind but the Swiss and the Swedes mostly maintained neutrality by serving both sides and either buying bags of gold teeth or selling raw materials and weapons.

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