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Does America Need Rodrigo Duterte?

Wednesday, October 26, 2016 6:39
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(Before It's News)

Doug Bandow

America’s alliance structure in Europe and Asia dates back more
than six decades. A few of the smaller, less viable organizations
collapsed (CENTO, SEATO), but since the end of the Cold War,
Washington has expanded rather than contracted its treaty
obligations. That includes in the Philippines, which two years ago
approved a new agreement providing the U.S. military with bases and
joining in exercises.

Now this alliance might finally be coming to an end.

No one knows what Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte will do
next. He makes Donald Trump look like a deep thinker of notable
civility and stability. Nevertheless, after spending the last month
trashing President Barack Obama, the United States and the
U.S.-Philippine relationship, Duterte announced he’d joined the
opposing team while visiting Beijing.

America’s relationship with the Philippines always has been
complicated. Americans arrived claiming to be liberators, ready to
free the archipelago from its Spanish masters. Then Washington used
even greater violence to suppress an indigenous independence
movement. Several hundred thousand Filipinos died in the ensuing
conflict.

Washington’s influence is not worth courting conflict with
China.

Nevertheless, Washington eventually released its colony, and the
two peoples fought together in World War II. Although the
Philippine government was a model of how not to operate, military
ties remained close, reflecting the 1951 “mutual” defense treaty as
well as ongoing U.S. troop presence. Eventually rising nationalism,
along with an ill-timed volcanic eruption, resulted in the closure
of Clark Air Base and Subic Bay naval station.

But only a few years later, the American armed forces trickled
back, aiding Manila in combating Islamic insurgents, providing
military assistance and arming the decrepit Philippine armed
forces. As the People’s Republic of China more firmly asserted its
territorial claims, Philippine officials hoped to borrow the
American military to confront Beijing nearby, while the Pentagon
wanted to expand base access to contain the PRC regionally. It
seemed like a win-win—except for the American people, who risked
waking up some morning and finding themselves at war with China
after a clash between Chinese and Philippine vessels near
Scarborough Reef, a useless bit of rock most Americans had never
heard of.

Now the seventy-one-year-old former mayor has upset the two
militaries’ cozy arrangement. Slaughtering drug users and dealers
is criminal, but insulting the U.S. president is even more shocking
for most Americans, who are used to foreign dependents exhibiting
appropriate deference. American officials seem united by the hope
that everything will just blow over, or they will wake up and
discover President Duterte was just an unusually frightful
nightmare.

Even his own officials did their best to neuter his outbursts.
He often contradicted himself—he wanted to keep the 1951 defense
treaty while “realigning” the country and suggested that some of
his ideas were only for the long term. Some observers theorized
that Duterte was only acting crazy, attempting to gain leverage in
order to squeeze additional cash out of Washington in return for
accepting U.S. military forces. Or maybe Duterte was hoping to win
a firmer U.S. commitment to defend the Philippines, including its
contested territories, and press China for the return of
Scarborough Shoal.

However, he does not seem that organized and calculating. More
likely that Americans and Filipinos alike are seeing the real
Duterte.

If so, Washington’s plan to expand military cooperation and U.S.
use of Philippine territory is dead. American officials might be
able to hunker down and preserve the legal basis for the U.S.
military’s presence, if not all of the ongoing activities. Then
Duterte’s successor could return to usual Philippine form,
satisfying U.S. desires.

However, his visit to the PRC suggests that the coming years are
likely to be much less stable. In Beijing, Duterte did the full
monty in Chinese, so to speak. He proclaimed his Chinese heritage
and announced his “ "http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-philippines-idUSKCN12K0AS"
target="_blank">separation from the United States
.” America had
“lost” both economically and militarily, he asserted. Moreover, he
stated, “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I
will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are
three of us against the world—China, Philippines, and Russia. It’s
the only way.”

This is bizarre nonsense. Neither China nor Russia wants to take
on the world. They hope to make more friends, especially of states
formerly in America’s orbit. And if they are looking for partners,
they probably won’t choose a semi-failed state governed by an
inconsistent hothead.

However, it is becoming harder for even Duterte’s most loyal
aides to walk back his statements. His economic ministers said he
only meant he wanted stronger Asian integration, but that is not
what he said. Talk of allying with China and Russia against the
United States is a lot more serious than seeking investment and
trade deals from them.

Duterte may be lucky to last his full term. It’s not clear what
he will end up getting from China. Beijing expects to be well
compensated for its “assistance,” as a number of African nations
have found. Burma’s junta yielded much of its authority to civilian
government in part to attract the West to counter the PRC, whose
embrace had grown uncomfortably tight. If Manila ends up paying a
lot more for Chinese “help” than expected, political
dissatisfaction may follow.

So far he remains popular, but the Philippine people are fickle.
And the public is overwhelmingly pro-American; more than twice as
many Filipinos view the United States favorably than China. Indeed,
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel  "nofollow" href=
"http://bigstory.ap.org/article/b8e88f4b6a304289b3dd89ef2a691cbb/us-mood-hardens-leader-ally-philippines-stokes-outrage"
target="_blank">publicly warned Duterte
 not “to
underestimate the power of the public’s affinity for the U.S.”
Posing an even greater danger may be the security establishment,
which is heavily dependent on the United States—and has not
hesitated to speed the exit of past unpopular presidents.

Rather than hope for a coup lite, American officials should use
the Philippine soap opera to rethink their policy of underwriting
Manila, irrespective of its policy. Continued defense cooperation
makes sense, but that means a much more limited and equal
relationship. Washington should terminate the misnamed “mutual”
defense treaty and scale back its military presence under the 2014
pact. Certainly no more anti-Chinese military patrols and more
limited training activities.

If Duterte is able to peacefully settle the China-Philippines
territorial dispute, Washington should be pleased at having one
less war contingency to plan for. The United States should not push
its client to confrontation and conflict.

On the other hand, if Manila still wants to challenge the
region’s rising power, then Washington should suggest that the
former build a military capable of doing so. For America to
effectively turn the decision for war with a nuclear-armed power
over to an unpredictable, irresponsible and impulsive leader of a
marginally armed small state would be more than foolish. The United
States should step back, prepared to counter any hostile state
seeking to dominate Eurasia, while leaving more mundane disputes,
such as that over Scarborough Shoal, to the interested parties.

At its most crude, the United States doesn’t need the
Philippines. China challenges American domination in East Asia, not
security at home. And Manila couldn’t aid Washington in defending
the latter anyway. Washington’s influence is not worth courting
conflict with a likely great power by attempting to make the
archipelago part of a Pacific cordon
sanitaire
 to contain the PRC—especially since Beijing has
not threatened any state’s independence, even in its own
neighborhood. China’s neighbors, not America, should take the lead
in constraining the PRC.

Rodrigo Duterte has inadvertently helped the United States for
all the wrong reasons. He seems prepared to end an alliance which
Washington should have dropped years ago. It’s an ugly way to do
business. But it’s better than forever preserving the failed status
quo.

target="_blank">Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato
Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald
Reagan.

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Source: http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/does-america-need-rodrigo-duterte

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