This past month’s announcement in Beijing by Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte that Manila’s monogamous alliance with the United States is essentially void may go down in history as the biggest diplomatic blunder since the U.S. “loss of China” to the Communists in 1945. While that debate triggered a great deal of soul-searching within the Washington community, the apparent loss of the Philippines, coming in the midst of a tumultuous election season, has received little public attention. The abruptness of Duterte’s “separation” from the United States after seven decades in a tight security alliance should raise serious questions about the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy, not to mention its military-intelligence complex. How could such a dramatic shift not have been anticipated by so many intelligence analysts, diplomats, and think tank experts?
Those who failed to foresee it say that it was the result of the caprice of a populist demagogue, a mad dog whose bark is worse than his bite. The reality is that, prior to Duterte’s trip to China and “declaration of independence,” there was a broader set of trends that John Kerry and his associates failed to notice.
Duterte’s annoyance with Washington, we are told, has to do with the Obama Administration’s criticism of his unbridled and extrajudicial war on drugs. This is a simplistic view of Duterte’s mindset. The truth is that his resentment of the United States is rooted in his personal experiences, especially his tenure as Mayor of Davao City. When I was in Beijing during Duterte’s visit, people close to him told me that U.S. officials, both military and civilian, as well as U.S. businessmen, behaved offensively toward him and his Filipino colleagues while he was Mayor. But this alone cannot explain his efforts to break such a long-standing strategic alliance. The Chinese diaspora in the Philippines has been a much more influential factor. This community may be tiny—barely 2 percent of the population—but it also accounts the vast majority of the country’s business elite. By some accounts, more than three-quarters of the country’s private wealth is held by Filipinos of Chinese descent. Indeed, almost all of the top 200 Filipino businessmen whom Duterte brought with him to Beijing had Chinese ancestry. These Chinese Filipinos have not only been pushing for better relations with mainland China, which would obviously contribute to their wealth; they have also been the biggest cheerleaders of Duterte’s war on drugs. Just like wealthy people in drug-ridden countries such as Mexico and Colombia, Chinese-Filipinos have been victims of numerous drug-related abductions, ransoms, and robberies. This elite has backed Duterte’s war on drugs and has cleared the ground for his shift to the Chinese, for whom the killing of drug dealers is not of particular concern.
The lesson for the United States is that, throughout the world and particularly in Asia, Chinese minorities are becoming increasingly well organized and assertive. They have a growing role in shaping their home countries’ internal and foreign policies—particularly with regard to relations with China.
Yet there are also other lessons to consider. For too long U.S. policy toward the Philippines and its neighbors has been viewed through the lens of the South China Sea dispute. The U.S. government encouraged Manila to take its case to international arbitration at The Hague and has prompted its allies to resist any Chinese attempt to change the status quo by means of its Navy’s navigation operations. The reality is that, while the issue is important, it is far from being the number-one concern of most of the countries in Southeast Asia. Faced with chronic poverty, pollution, and other social and economic problems, governments in the region are not as eager as U.S. policymakers to exchange the promise of economic growth for the instability associated with a fight for uninhabited islands and fishing rights. While the Obama Administration saw the Filipino victory at The Hague as the beginning of an orchestrated pushback against Chinese expansionism and was ready to act on it militarily, Manila preferred to put the matter on the back burner and focus on what is really important to it: money.
Since the announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative (also known as the New Silk Road), Asian countries have all amended their China policies in the hope of being on the receiving end of Chinese investments. The Belt and Road Initiative consists of a Maritime Silk Road that connects the South China Sea with the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean along six land corridors, one of which is called the China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor. This multibillion-dollar project aims to improve connectivity between China and the Southeast Asian countries of Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Singapore via a web of ports, high-speed rail lines, pipelines, and free-trade zones. Duterte realized that China’s creation of such an economic block could leave the Philippines not only starved for investment but also disconnected from the rest of the Malay Peninsula. He therefore decided to plunge into the honey pot and make amends with Beijing.
The Obama Administration, for its part, has failed to grasp the strategic importance of the Belt and Road strategy and the way it shapes the policies of U.S. allies. Indeed, it has been quite dismissive of it and in some cases (as with the opposition to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) has even taken active steps to undermine it. It also failed to internalize the region’s urgent need for investment in physical infrastructure. Instead it has focused on the enforcement of environmental policies, women’s rights, child labor regulations, democracy promotion, and anti-corruption measures. Laudable as these may be, they do little to lift millions from poverty—which is what leaders like Duterte are primarily focused on.
Duterte’s drift toward China delivered a painful blow to President Obama’s so-called Pivot to Asia. This policy, which was declared with great fanfare six years ago, has proven to be hollow. If Duterte’s anti-U.S. drive continues, we may see even deeper fissures between the United States and this important Southeast Asian country.
Yet all hope is not lost. The Philippines’ drift away from the United States may still be reversed if Congress and the new administration learn the lessons of the recent past. Failure to understand the region’s priorities and sensitivities—and especially the inconvenient truth that in today’s low-growth environment money speaks louder than morals—will lead to similar outcomes in the relations with other Asian countries.