While the mainstream media continues its obsessive reporting on the mudslinging
campaign for the White House, a dramatic development in China last week brought
President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” to a sudden halt. Philippine
president Rodrigo Duterte, while in Beijing, announced his country’s “separation”
from the United States. He told his Chinese audience, “Your honors, in
this venue, I announce my separation from the United States … both in military,
but also economics.’’
The State Department was stunned and asked for a clarification. The Philippines
has been a virtual US protectorate since 1898, when it became US property after
the Spanish-American war. Even after gaining independence after World War II
it remained a close Cold War ally, hosting US military bases until 1992. Just
this spring, as US tensions with China were heating up over a Chinese reclamation
project in the South China Sea, the US signed a deal to open five military bases
on Philippine territory. The deal was considered of major importance in an increasingly
confrontational US approach to the region.
Suddenly it appeared the deal was off. Was the Philippines about to sever diplomatic
relations with the United States?
Shortly after making the statement, the Philippine president walked back slightly
from what appeared a break with the United States. He did not mean total separation,
he said, but rather a desire to loosen his country from the firm grip of US
foreign policy. But the point had been made. The Philippines was not happy in
its current relationship with Washington.
President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” has turned out not to mean
improved trade and diplomatic ties with the region, but an aggressive stance
toward China over, among other issues, the South China Sea. The US has concluded
military agreements with Vietnam and the Philippines, and maintains strong military
ties with Japan and South Korea.
The Philippines has been used as a US cat’s paw in South China Sea dispute
and Duterte’s surprise statement signaled that he felt the relationship
was too one-sided.
But the tension has been rising and the mood souring for some time. The US
State Department has been critical of President Duterte’s admittedly brutal
crackdown on illegal drugs, which has cost perhaps 2,000 or more lives. In August,
Secretary of State John Kerry conveyed the US government’s concerns. As
elsewhere, such condemnation by the US likely seemed hypocritical to the Philippine
president, as the US leads the world in prison population with a large percentage
serving long terms for nonviolent drug crimes.
Last week a large protest was held in front of the US embassy in Manila in
support of the president’s move toward a foreign policy independent from
Washington. Demonstrators burned American flags and demanded the…