Will the U.S. Lose Its Southern Anchor in the Pivot to China?
Whether President Duterte is threatening more than a rhetorical break is still an open question, says Walden Bello
SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte recently completed a major visit to China. Where the 2 countries reached several economic and military related agreements. Also, while visiting Japan, this week, President Duterte renewed his earlier comments about the possibility of cutting off military cooperation with the US. During a press conference following the visit in Japan, this is what Duterte had to say in reference to the US-Philippine military cooperation agreement.
PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE: If I stay here long enough, one day that EDCA (Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement) will, if it’s an executive agreement, then I will just… I do not want to see any military man of any other nation except the Philippine soldier.
PERIES: A spokesperson for the US State Department, John Kirby, reacted with measured remarks saying, “The US was not going to react and respond to every bit of rhetoric from Mr. Duterte.”
Joining us now from Japan to take a closer look at these shifting alliances in the Philipines is Walden Bello. Walden is former Philippine congressman serving 3 terms during which time he co-authored 2 joined resolutions seeking the termination of the Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States. Walden Bello is also the author of Capitalism’s Last Stand: Deglobalization in the Age of Austerity. Walden I thank you so much for joining us today.
WALDEN BELLO: Thank you for inviting me on, Sharmini.
PERIES: Walden, give us your take on how present the US is in the Philippines and in the South China Sea to give us some idea of the strategic importance of Philippines to the United States and China and the region.
BELLO: Well, the United States has had 2 major agreements with the Philippines over the last few years. One is the Visiting Forces Agreement that basically allows the US to rotate troops for training with Philippine forces. In 2014 the US and the Philippines concluded the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that basically would allow the United States to create military bases in nominally Philippine bases. And that whole trust of Washington is to basically contain China. The redeployment of the bulk of naval forces of the United States to the Pacific, this is part of it. Its also known as the [inaud.] to Asia.
So, while Japan is the northern anchor of the US strategic posture in the Western Pacific. The Philippines is the Southern anchor. The Philippines’s place is a fairly major role in Washington’s strategy.
PERIES: Now Walden during Duterte’s visit to China he suggested that the Philippines’s claims on the South China Sea could take a back seat to improve relations with China and the 2 countries obviously signed several new economic cooperation agreements which included fishing rights, investments, among other things. Now, give us some sense of what these alliances with China by way of the economy will do to the Philippines and their relations?
BELLO: I think that there is a great deal of the satisfaction on the part of President Duterte with the state of relations with the United States. My own sense is he really does not put much trust in the US supporting the claims of the Philippines in the South China Sea or the West Philippine Sea. Legally speaking, the US has said that its not bound to protect the Philippine claims in those areas.
PERIES: So Walden, what you’re saying, it looks like Philippines has moved another step closer to realigning itself away from the US and towards China. This happened in the late 1990s, as well. What does this mean in terms of the US role in the Philippines and in the region?
BELLO: This would put a spanner, if he carries it out, it will put a spanner in the US strategic posture. As I said, there are those 2 military treatises that the Philippines has with the United States. And he could easily, in fact, aggregate those treatises. The Visiting Forces Agreement, all it takes for the Philippine government to give notice of 6 months and also end the enhanced defense security agreement. This would be the implication if he were to carry it out now the question is, despite his strong anti-American statements recently, is Duterte willing to go and tear up this agreement at this point in time? And his recent visit to Japan, he alluded to the fact that he might in fact depart from these agreements. The question for everybody at this point is, how serious is he? Is there going to be a follow-through on this? That’s with respect to the US.
With respect to China, I think that there is of course the very strong push for economic cooperation for investment and to be able to share in the Chinese economic growth. More fully. That’s there. With respect to military alignment, I think that’s still quite vague. I think what he wants to do is just to create a better atmosphere between China and the Philippines and the one thing though that I think he will maintain is the Philippines – the Hague Declaration that declares null and void China’s claims to 90 percent of the South China Sea. Now, he has said that that would be put in the back burner but if you look at the statements he has not said that the Philippines is in fact going to abandon the Hague decision that really was in favor of the Philippines.
PERIES: Well, what is the specificity of that contestation between China and the Philippines?
BELLO: Its about, basically, the West Philippine Sea, as we call it, or the South China Sea. There are about 6 claiming countries to the area, to the different island formations in the area. China has said that 90 percent of the South China Sea belongs to them, and essentially the decision in the Hague, about 3 months ago, basically said that there was no legal basis to China’s claims to the waters and to the island formations in that area. So, that was basically what that decision was all about. It was a legal defeat for China in the tribunal. What Duterte is saying, as far as I gather, is that he’s not going to press that decision at this point. He’s going to warm up to China but leave the resolution of the territorial claims between the 2 countries for a later period. So, that’s in essence what he has been claiming at this point in time in terms of the territorial disagreements between the Philippines and China.
PERIES: Obviously Philippines is very important but what other alliances that China have in the region that’s going to help them in this effort against US trying to encircle China?
BELLO: First of all, I don’t think we can call it an alliance at this point. It certainly is a warming of affiliations but where Duterte and China bring this still has to be developed. The situation at this point is that there is territorial disagreements but China also is vastly influential in the association of Southeast Asian nations mainly because of its economic power. But there’s also the military power of China that many of the countries have a great degree of respect for, or what you might say, fear of. So there’s that element of China being a major major power in this part of the world. What’s happening right now is, there is this emerging China and there is the counterbalance that is being pushed by the United States at this point. The United States’ strategy is really to encircle and contain China and Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines are part of that process.
Essentially, what’s happening is that if Duterte in fact pushes through with his tricks to cancel the previous [inaud.] with the United States, that would knock off the Southern anchor of the US strategy. The question of course is, will he do that? And that is in fact what people are discussing at this point. Whether there will be a follow through on that or will it simply be putting this treatises into cold storage and not really leading the alliance but basically just toning it down and not really giving it more life. These are all the questions that are there at this point. And of course within the Philippines itself, there’s a great deal of confusion. Is Duterte serious? In the past he has been seen taking back his statements or he makes one statement and then his subordinates say “well he really didn’t mean that” or “he was exaggerating.”
So, essentially, what has happened at this point is that yes, there has been a strong rhetorical break of the President from the United States. But people are still confused as to whether in fact there will be a follow through on this and of course the region since the Philippines is so essential to the US strategy so many of the different countries in the region are also watching this very closely, because it could mean a major geo-political shift in the area if the Philippines and if Duterte follows through with this to realign with China and with Russia.
PERIES: Walden, I thank you so much for joining us today and I really appreciate you staying up late to do this interview.
BELLO: Okay, thank you too.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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