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Asia's Game of Thrones
Duterte’s Spin Room Gets to Work

A day after the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte dramatically announced a “separation” from the United States, Philippine officials are trying to soften his comments (without fully contradicting them). Reuters:

Trade Minister Ramon Lopez sought to explain Duterte’s comments.

“Let me clarify. The president did not talk about separation,” Lopez told CNN Philippines in Beijing.

“In terms of economic (ties), we are not stopping trade, investment with America. The president specifically mentioned his desire to strengthen further the ties with China and the ASEAN region which we have been trading with for centuries,” he said, referring to the Association of South East Asian Nations.

He said the Philippines was “breaking being too much dependent on one side”.

Duterte’s spokesman, meanwhile, stated that the president wanted to “separate the nation from dependence on the U.S. and the West and rebalance economic and military relations with Asian neighbors.”

What all this means for U.S.-Philippines defense cooperation is unclear. When asked by reporters about Duterte’s comments, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said that the U.S. intended to uphold its alliance commitments with the Philippines. He added, “obviously any relationship is one of mutuality and we will continue to discuss that with our Philippine counterparts.”

The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, Daniel Russel, is traveling to the Philippines this weekend and will be seeking clarity from counterparts in Manila. Watch this space: the fallout from the Philippine pivot is only just beginning.

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  • Greg Olsen

    The realist tradition of international relations explains most of the Philippine state’s behavior. When confronted with a more powerful rival that presents a security threat, the weaker state, in this case the Philippines, can choose one of two courses: (1) it can bandwagon with the rival, or (2) it can seek alliances to balance power.

    The Philippines is choosing to bandwagon for the following reasons:
    (1) China has asserted sovereignty over the whole of the South China Sea in contravention of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in order to secure its sea lines of communication (SLOCs) from blockade in any future conflict with another great power (i.e., the US, Japan or Russia), and capture its natural resources for itself, particularly fishing and energy resources
    (2) The US is the only viable security partner in the region currently, but the strategic position of the US in any conflict over the South China sea is weak, since thousands of miles must be traversed in order to support US forces in the region
    (3) The US (Obama administration) has played a weak hand weakly so far not wanting an escalation by committing to defense of the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone.
    Thus, the Philippines thinks it is likely not to get a better offer from the Chinese than acceptance of a deal where China claims sovereignty, but shares resources–i.e., a accept China as a type of suzerain–because the United States will not defend the Philippines EEZ for them and they are too weak to assert control themselves.

    The Obama administration for its part is trying to use diplomatic tools from the Cold War, linkage with the security issue, but it doesn’t realize it has already undermined its own ability to execute a successful strategy of linkage. Three freedom of navigation patrols do not make a robust response to Chinese contravention of international law, nor assuage fears of Chinese domination of weaker powers in the region.

    • The bottom line is that the US has abandoned key allies South Korea, Japan and the Philippines; and has wasted its diplomatic and military resources and reputation in places that the US has zero-to-little interest in, such as Iraq, Syria, Iran, South Ossetia, Ukraine, Crimea, Occupied Palestine.

    • ltlee1

      The fact taht the US is not a member of the UNCLOS delegitimizes US position. In addition, China would certainly defend the 11 dashed line claim put forth by the ROC which is still an independent political entity. The 11 dashed line claim renders ruling over the 9 dashed line claim totally irrelevant.

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