Philippine’s tilt towards China-Russia & options with the US

Philippine has announced to separate with the US and to ally with China as well as a strong alliance with the Russia. In this regard, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced that the country would separate from its longstanding relationship with the US and ally with China as well as to open a dialogue with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. During his visit to Beijing, President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to resume direct talks on disputes in the South China Sea after years of escalating tension, a sign of warming relations with Beijing. Duterte further distanced his country from its longtime ally the United States regarding foreign policy. I will not go to America anymore.

We will just be insulted there, so time to say goodbye my friend.

He repeatedly sought to distance the Philippines from the United States, a treaty ally. Duterte, speaking to business leaders shortly after meeting with Xi, openly declared a “separation from the United States, however, he refrained from saying that he would revoke a 70-year-old treaty alliance with Washington and made no indication in this regard. The decision to reopen discussions on the South China Sea after a hiatus of several years offers the promise of de-escalating tensions in the South China Sea, an issue that has strained Washington’s relationship with Beijing.

Duterte alarmed United States officials by asserting that the Philippines would reduce military cooperation with Washington, and his openly anti-American sentiments this week, as well as his tilt toward Beijing, may add to their concerns. He suggested that the separation would extend to the military, not maybe social, but economics also. America has lost. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow, and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin. A day earlier, Duterte struck a similarly resistant tone before a group of Philippine citizens living in China. Time to say goodbye my friend the United States, I will not go to America anymore, I will just be insulted there.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters Thursday that the leaders had a “candid and friendly exchange of views” over the South China Sea, bringing them “back to the right track of dialogue and consultations to resolve relevant disputes.

The two sides agreed to establish a joint coast guard committee on maritime cooperation, a potentially significant step because Chinese Coast Guard vessels have been keeping Philippine fishing boats from Scarborough Shoal. In a gesture to Philippine fishermen, China’s vice foreign minister, Liu Zhenmin, said China would provide assistance with aquaculture and the commercial processing of fish, an issue that Duterte has emphasized. Liu said that the countries’ relationship was back to full recovery and that they would hold talks on broader defense and security issues, which had also been halted under Aquino.

Both sides agreed that the South China Sea issue is not the sum total of the bilateral relationship. On the investment front, China agreed to finance infrastructure in the Philippines, lifted the embargo on the import of tropical fruits, including mangoes, and said it would start encouraging its tourists to visit after removing a travel advisory on the Philippines.

In this scenario, Russian ambassador to Manila said Moscow was ready to provide assistance and fully cooperate with Philippines. Formulate your wish list. What kind of assistance do you expect from Russia and we will be ready to sit down with you and discuss what can and should be done,” Russian Ambassador Igor Khovaev observed.

He went on to state that Russia was open to working with the Philippines in any area, any field of possible cooperation. The ambassador assured the news outlet that Moscow would not “interfere with the domestic affairs of a sovereign state,” and that the “true Russia” is much different than the one portrayed in Hollywood films. Khovaev added that the Philippines and Russia deserve to know each other much, much better. He also said that Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte impressed Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev during a meeting in Laos last month, and that Moscow supports the leader’s fight against illegal drugs and criminality.

Meanwhile, the Philippines’ trade minister Ramon Lopez, said that in terms of economic [ties], we are not stopping trade, investment with America. The president specifically mentioned his desire to strengthen further the ties with China and the ASEAN region, which we have been trading with for centuries. He explained that the Philippines was just breaking being too much dependent on one side…but we definitely won’t stop the trade and investment activities with the West, specifically the US.

In response to the development, the White House said current U.S. direct investment to the Philippines is over $4.7 billion.

The US State Department spokesman John Kirby said Duterte’s remarks were inexplicably at odds with the very close relationship we have with the Filipino people as well as the government there on many different levels, not just from a security perspective. John Kirby said that the United States will seek an explanation from Duterte over his separation announcement, which he made during a visit to China. But he limited criticism to calling the remarks baffling and inexplicably at odds with close ties between Washington and Manila. The US officials say that despite Duterte’s announcement, the Philippines has not yet cancelled military exercises or formally requested any tangible change in the security relationship. In this scenario, the US administration has few good options and limited leverage to responde to the Duterte’s announcement.

Potentially at stake is the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, reached under Duterte’s predecessor, allowing the United States to rotate ships, aircraft, and personnel through five Philippines bases, an arrangement seen as crucial to projecting U.S. military power on China’s doorstep. There had been an active internal debate in recent months on how far to go in criticizing Duterte’s government on human rights and that the measured tone adopted was not as strong as some aides would have liked. There is a suspicion in Washington that Duterte could swing back to the United States – if he decides it suits his interests.

Furthermore, if it chose to respond more vigorously to human rights concerns, the United States could decide to cut military aid to the Philippines, or make it contingent upon an end to the drug killings or more careful judicial procedures. But Philippine officials have suggested their country could live without the US assistance, and overtures to China and Russia suggest they might seek assistance elsewhere.

The Philippines is a former US colony and an estimated four million US citizens are of Philippine ancestry. The US accounts for roughly a third of the $17.6 billion that Filipinos working overseas have sent home this year. Remittances from many of these people to families in the Philippines are often economic lifelines, and significant contributors to local economies throughout the country. And it cuts both ways — there are more than 220,000 US citizens living in the Philippines, including a large number of US veterans. The Philippines is also a big tourist destination for Americans — an estimated 650,000 visit the country, with its world-class beaches, diving and adventure tourism, amongst many other draws, each year.

According to the US State Department, over $25 billion in goods and services are traded between the US and the Philippines each year. The country could lose up to $1.3 billion in foreign direct investments, not to mention more than $150 million in development aid if Duterte goes through with his threats to cut economic ties. The US is the Philippines’ third-largest trading partner after Japan and China. If relations with the US completely break down that would be a cause for concern, since there is a lot of US investment in the Philippines.

The US companies have invested more than $4.7 billion in the Philippines. Duterte clearly hopes that China will more than make up any shortfall. During his trip to Beijing, he signed 13 trade and economic agreements but details were thin on the ground on what benefits they would bring.

One concrete step was the lifting of a travel advisory cautioning Chinese citizens on visits to the Philippines. China’s deputy foreign minister Liu Zhenmin said this would “greatly encourage” tourists.

Moreover, the split couldn’t have come at a worse time for the US military. It is seeking bolster against Chinese territorial expansionism in the South China Sea. Before Duterte’s rise to power, the nation was expected to be a key ally in defending the maritime rights of a number of Southeast Asian nations embroiled in a long-running dispute with China.

Historically, there has been a large US military presence in the Philippines — even the country’s ubiquitous Jeepney buses were originally cobbled together from World War II-era American jeeps.

While there is no permanent US presence there these days — that ended in 1992 — the country had remained a stalwart ally and Duterte’s predecessor, President Noynoy Aquino, signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) by executive order, allowing a limited and temporary US military presence in the country. As recently as March of this year the US planned to re-create a permanent presence in the Philippines in five new bases. The Visiting Forces Agreement or VFA, an older agreement, lays out conditions for the entry of US to the country. It would appear from Duterte’s comments that he wants to scrap these agreements. Duterte has previously indicated that he’ll put an end to joint US-Philippines military drills, althoughhis comments then indicated that the military alliance would remain intact.


Author is an Assistant Editor of Melange & Handling International Affairs at COPAIR

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