On May 30, 2016 Manila’s parliament appointed Rodrigo Roa Duterte as the sixteenth president of the Philippines following his election victory over rival Mar Roxas with over seven million votes. Born in Maasin 71 years ago, Duterte has had a long career in public administration, having served as mayor of Davao city for more than 22 years with seven mandates. Duterte’s electoral marathon was a real triumph resulting from the anti-establishment sentiment increasingly widespread among the world’s population. The sharp contrast Duterte represented from the ruling political class in Manila secured him the unexpected victory.
A fundamental aspect, linked to the success that has accompanied the new president, regards the election program. Its four main pillars are simple and effective:
– Fighting drug dealers and petty crime (a plague that is devouring the nation);
– Independent and advantageous foreign policy for Manila (not putting Washington’s interests first);
– Fostering conditions necessary for a rapid and sustainable economic recovery;
– Eradication of the terrorist organisation Abu Sayyaf.
Following Duterte’s victory, we have witnessed growing tension between Manila and Washington. Predictably, Duterte’s four points openly go against Washington’s strategic objectives in the region. The United States would like to contain growing Chinese influence; but without valuable traditional allies in the region, in particular Japan and the Philippines, this already difficult task seems impossible. In this sense, Manila’s attitude should not be too surprising, anxious as it is to put aside historical differences and recent tensions with Beijing.
Economics as Means for a Multipolar Transition
The step aiming towards the economic restructuring of the Philippines is not possible without the full cooperation with the Republic of China. With that in mind, even before he was elected, Duterte proposed to cease joint patrols with the US Navy in the South China Sea in exchange for the construction of high-speed rail in the country. For Beijing, the Philippine proposal is fully in line with the win-win strategy that the Chinese constantly promote in their diplomatic action, which preaches for the reduction of regional frictions powered by an external actor (the US) in order to increase industrial cooperation that produces economic prosperity. The project to build high-speed rail fully corresponds with this plan of action, and could represent a new set of political balances in the region.
The ideal platform to activate Manila’s request is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which recently came into being after years of discussions between founding countries. The special feature of this economic organisation covers the investment-approval mechanisms. A very specific clause signed by all members prevents political exploitation of funded projects, a key element aimed to prevent external intrusions that seek to affect the infrastructure development process, a central pivot of the AIIB.
The major stumbling block remains the final ratification in Manila’s senate of the participation of the Philippines in the AIIB. Specifically, the senate must vote with a two-thirds majority in order to be able to implement domestic policies decided in international agreements like the ones that are going to be signed with the AIIB.
Terrorism as a Means of Pressure and Influence
As is evident in geopolitical and strategic terms, Obama’s famous Asian pivot creates more of a problem for Manila seeking to pursue an independent foreign policy that is beneficial and based on cooperation with Beijing.
One of the most common tools employed by Washington to threaten and destabilise strategically significant countries like the Philippines is to resort to the use of terrorism. From the 1980s to today, radical Islam has gone from being confined to very specific areas to manifesting itself in almost every corner of the planet, including the Philippines. It could be said without fear of contradiction that the expansion of Islamic terrorism has coincided with the Washington’s growing aspirations for global dominance. The example of the Abu Sayyaf organisation is pertinent and illuminating.
Entrenched in the Southern Philippines, it is an Islamist group founded by members of the Afghani Freedom Fighters (Taliban) of Reagan memory and later trained by Al Qaeda in the 2000s. It has been operating in the region for more than two decades and seeks territorial independence from Manila, a typical and renowned American ploy to put pressure on foreign governments.
Duterte Messes Up the American Plans
Duterte recently announced an upcoming anti-terrorism operation against the Abu Sayyaf militant radical islamic group. The special feature of the solution arrived at by the new president sent Washington into a rage. American troops will be forced to temporarily abandon their military bases in the south of the country. When they will be allowed to return will also be part of a negotiation that should redefine the strategic partnership between Washington and Manila.
In a recent meeting held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Philippine foreign minister, Perfecto Yasay Jr, explained that it will be difficult to provide protection and security for American soldiers during the proposed military operations. Of course this is only a diplomatic excuse, the real reason being much deeper and intrinsically tied to the US strategy of using terrorism to achieve its geostrategic objectives. Manila is aware that the effort against Abu Sayyaf would be more effective without the awkward presence of American personnel. In other words, Duterte does not trust Washington and is aware that the terrorists would benefit from the American presence.
An Unstoppable Revolution
In the space of a few months the Philippines transitioned from being a historical foothold of Washington in the Pacific (the US has five military bases in the country), to one of the countries most eager to mend relations with Beijing. It is yet another step in the transformation that is slowly reshaping the global scene, that is to say, from the unipolar domination of the United States to a fully multipolar environment where regional interests are not outweighed by the need to impose global hegemony. Based on the words and promises of Duterte, we know that the Philippines does not have any intention of breaking away from Washington and joining the countries openly opposed to the US. Instead, there is a stated desire to mend relations with the China, an essential key element for the nation’s economic recovery.
If Washington refuses to accept the multipolar shift Manila is pursuing, this will end up completely alienating a mainstay of US strategy in Asia. It is a sequence of events that we see repeated more and more to the detriment of the US. Duterte has already amply hinted that his number one priority concerns the absolute sovereignty of the Philippines and its national interests, two priorities that the US tends to reject. A confrontation will inevitably end in the worsening of relations between the two countries, signifying a major setback for US strategy in Asia by pushing Manila and Beijing closer together.
This article was first published on strategic-culture.org on September 25, 2016.
About the Author
Federico Pieraccini is an independent freelance writer specialised in international affairs, conflicts, politics and strategies.