To say that drama and controversy follows 71-year old Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, is an understatement. During last week’s visit to Beijing, China, Duterte announced that “in this venue, I announce my separation from the U.S.” He then retracted the assertion on his return trip to the Philippines, instead proclaiming that maintaining ties with the U.S. is within the best interests of the Philippines.
Duterte has a colorful history of talking out of both sides of his mouth and further carries a reputation marred by controversy from the many years he served as Mayor of Davao City.
Often accused of inciting violent vigilante justice against drug dealers, Time Magazine once called Duterte, “the punisher,” — a fitting title for a man often condemned by international human rights organizations.
Duterte was sworn in as the President of the Philippines in June, after receiving less than forty percent of the vote. Duterte succeeded Benigno Aquino III, who chose to retire after serving since 2010.
When Duterte recently caught wind that U.S. President Obama wanted to lecture him about past human rights issues, Duterte exhibited the bizarre behavior for which he is known. China saw this opening as a strategic opportunity and moved quickly to leverage Duterte’s frustration with the U.S. by toying with the idea of engaging the Philippines as a geopolitical partner in the region. Duterte, whose grandfather emigrated from China, now wants to terminate joint U.S.-Philippine naval patrols in the South China Sea.
The Philippines has been a long and valuable U.S. ally in Southeast Asia. It’s the second largest English speaking nation in the world (among countries with English as an official language), with a population of over 100 million, and greater than 80 percent of the population are professed Christians. It is a constitutional republic whose president is elected every six years.
Additionally, the Philippine Government has a bicameral congress with a house and senate. Many Filipinos have relatives in the U.S. In fact, the Philippines is one of the top countries of origin for immigrants, with approximately two-million in the U.S.
The U.S. has consistently been able to count on the Philippines and, in fact, both countries have a mutual defense treaty dating back to 1951.
China has seized on the situation with Duterte, who is really just a pawn in its efforts to control the South China Sea and its strategic waterways. A great deal of the world’s trade passes through the South China Sea every year. In fact, ships carry approximately $5-trillion in cargo every year through the South China Sea.
This summer, a Hague tribunal ruled against China’s claims to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea. China, of course, pays little attention to decisions made through international courts and has continued to construct artificial islands in areas of contention in the South China Sea. In fact, on some of these Islands, the Chinese are installing equipment which can be utilized for both civilian and military purposes.
Other key players involved in the South China Sea issue include Vietnam and Malaysia.
This past summer the Chinese Coast Guard sank a Vietnamese fishing boat, and a month later the Vietnamese responded by deploying mobile rocket launchers — capable of striking Chinese targets — to its Islands in the South China Sea. This week, the Chinese Navy sent a naval escort task force to Vietnam to ease tensions and strengthen relations.
Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy and has enjoyed good relations with the U.S. for many years. Unfortunately, Malaysia and China in 2015 conducted joint military field exercises for the first time ever.
One thing is for sure. When it comes to the South China Sea, the Chinese have a plan and are executing it. The current American foreign policy for Southeast Asia — also known as President Obama’s “Pivot to Asia,” policy — has proven to be no more than a cautious and reactive disengagement from the region.
The U.S. must instead reengage itself with real leadership and a proactive strategy demonstrating American strength and resiliency to its allies in the region. The U.S. must bolster its strategic partnerships with the Alliance of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and implore regional leaders to work cohesively against the common Chinese aggressor.
For example, America should work more with strategic allies like Singapore and Australia to develop a unified diplomatic, political, and military strategy that defends the sovereignty of the South China Sea and contains Chinese aggression.
However, in the current international chess game, the Chinese have made all of the right moves. Maintaining free, open and unfettered trade through the South China Sea will continue to be vital to the global economy.
The United States needs a real plan and a real foreign policy, which includes the reengagement of old allies while working with new ones.
Van Hipp is chairman of American Defense International, Inc. (ADI), a Washington, D.C. consulting firm. He is former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, and served on the Presidential Electoral College in 1988. He is the author of “The New Terrorism: How to Fight It and Defeat It.” To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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