Thinking Pinoy: Duterte's Philippines breaking away from the United States?

September 9, 2016

Duterte's Philippines breaking away from the United States?

Duterte shifted geopolitical tides during the 2016 ASEAN Summit.


But before I go into that, it's important to get a little bit of context.

On July 21st and barely over a week after the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) decided on the South China Sea (SCS) issue, President Rodrigo Duterte asked US Ambassador Philip Goldberg, “Are you with us or are you not with us?”, to which Goldberg answered, “Only if you are attacked.”

Goldberg’s answer is technically correct: that’s how the 1951 PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) is worded.

But there’s a problem.

How the 1951 PH-US MDT works

Judging from the official text of the MDT [GovPH] and from the point of view of the Philippines, the “MDT algorithm” basically works like this:
  • First: try to settle international disputes through peaceful means.
  • Second: Filipinos will develop, with US help, its capacity to resist armed attack.
  • Third: Filipinos and American will talk regularly regarding threats.
  • Fourth: If an armed attack happens, United States will respond.
  • Fifth: If an armed attack happens, refer the issue to the UN Security Council.
The operative word here is “armed attack”, which the MDT defines as an [GovPH]:
…an armed attack on either of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties, or on the Island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific Ocean, its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific…
“Public vessel” means a non-commercial vessel owned or bareboat chartered and operated by the Republic of the Philippines, and political subdivision thereof [P.D. 600].
With this definition, attacks on Filipino commercial fishing vessels, which has become quite common, will not trigger MDT.

Triggering the MDT

Duterte’s question, however, less about whether the US will go to war with us and more about whether will take a stronger, pro-Philippines stance in as far as our South China Sea assertions.

That is, it appears that in that question to Goldberg, Duterte, in between the lines, asked, “Will the US help us enforce the PCA ruling?”

The answer, clearly, is no. But how did Goldberg’s seemingly favorable answer become a “no”?

The South China Sea issue is a sea dispute and the nearest undisputed Philippine terrestrial territory is the shore of Palawan Island over 100 kilometers away. Going by terms of the MDT, the only way to trigger it is through sending a Filipino public vessel (coast guard, navy, whatever). Given the dismal state of Philippine naval forces, we will be basically sending that public vessel to its doom.

Yes, Duterte may have to sacrifice Filipino lives just to trigger MDT.
I personally doubt that it will go that far. A full scale war between the United States and China is unlikely because of terribly complex and potentially apocalyptic geopolitical and economic ramifications on both sides. Besides, just imagine the prospective consternation of China’s massive and rising middle class. It’s just too complicated.

But just because war is unlikely doesn’t mean we’re already okay: Goldberg’s tacit “no” means a lot more than that.

SCS Resource Exploitation

Ambassador Goldberg’s answer “Only if you are attacked.” has at least one more important and more practical implication: SCS resource exploitation rights.

Fish is an important resource and competition over dwindling fish stocks [NatGeo] has been pointed out as one of the triggers of the dispute [TheDiplomat], where Chinese fishermen are forced to venture further south to find more fish. Yes, fewer fish might have triggered Chinese aggression, but I highly doubt that China will risk going to the brink of war just because of fish.

Aggression? Yes. War? No.

So what is it? Hydrocarbons, i.e. oil and natural gas. Energy Security, of course.Philex Petroleum’s 2011 attempt to exploit Reed Bank, which is a part of the contested area, is the open secret that catalyzed the PCA case [TP: Trillanes DFA and MVP], and everything that’s happening right now revolves around the PCA decision.

Now, suppose Philex Petroleum unilaterally asserts our sovereign rights over the 200-mile EEZ by starting to drill for oil or natural gas on Reed Bank and it sends ships there. The Chinese Navy can simply blow up those ships without fear of triggering the 1951 PH-US MDT.

Oil exploration ships are commercial in nature so they do not qualify as “public vessels” per MDT.

There is no viable way for the Philippines to defend ourselves by ourselves. We all know that, so MDT is crucial.

How about navy escorts?

Some camps may argue that we can send navy or coast guard ships to escort Philex Petroleum’s oil exploration ships. However, China can simply blow up oil exploration ships and leave the navy or coast guard ships unscathed. Technically, that won’t trigger MDT either, because the Chinese would have attacked only commercial ships.

Actually, China doesn’t even have to be that dramatic.

All they need to do is park their vessels right on top of the area to be explored (or drilled). That would be more than enough to prevent Philex Petroleum from doing anything.

What can Philex do? Can Philex or the navy force them to get out of there? No.

Yes, there will be a confrontation but no, there won’t be any “armed attacks”, because all China need to do is sit still, and I am pretty confident that China has enough ships to cover a sufficiently large area.

The bottom line: Without being friendlier to China, Filipinos will never be able to exploit South China Sea oil.

Put*ng Ina and the ASEAN Summit

Duterte is prone to emotional outbursts: everybody knows that. That’s why at first, I felt that the recent “son of a b*tch” incident [CBS] was one of those. However, Duterte’s subsequent actions appear to show a deeper, underlying reason.

Let’s recount key events after that incident:

1: Postponement of US-PH meeting

The United States wanting to postpone the meeting is a given [WSJ]. What’s more interesting however, is the Philippines’ agreement with this decision to postpone. Instead of appealing to the US for consideration, the Philippines suddenly found the proverbial balls to stand its ground.

Duterte, however, pushed through with a meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang [CNN] and another meeting with Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev [PCO] That is, Duterte didn’t meet with the US, but he still met with China and Russia, the US’s two fiercest rivals.

2: Duterte skips ASEAN-India summit

Citing migraine, Duterte then decided to skip the ASEAN-US and ASEAN-India summits, where ASEAN leaders met with the US and Indian governments, respectively [NDTV].

Duterte skipping the ASEAN-US summit wouldn't have been that much of an issue if the cursing incident is considered. That's kind of expected, you know. However, the fact that he also skipped the ASEAN-India summit reinforces my suspicions that he really wants friendlier relations with China.

While China-India relations saw an upswing when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited India in 2014 [TheDiplomat], the relations between two countries are historically problematic, with border disputes being first on the list [IndiaExpress]. Moreover, India supports the Philippines on the South China Sea dispute [InToday].

Duterte was expected to meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi [Star], but the meeting didn’t push through.

3: Duterte’s “apology” to Obama, sort of

Duterte said in a statement that he “regrets that his remarks… have caused much controversy,” but he also said that the Philippines wants to assert “the intent to chart an independent foreign policy and promote closer ties with all nations [DFA handout].”

Despite Duterte and Obama shaking hands later on [PTV], the written “apology”, while still a de facto apology, is measuredly half-assed.

Duterte’s written statement states the Philippines’ intent to take a neutral stance on the US-China tug-o-war, as opposed to a generally pro-US policy that is has adopted since time immemorial.

4: Duterte on the ASEAN-East Asia Summit

The ASEAN-East Asia Summit, more commonly called the ASEAN Plus Three (10+3) Summit, is a meeting between ASEAN and the East Asian countries China, Japan, and South Korea [MB].

Despite Duterte raising the issue of Rule of Law over the South China Sea, he decided not to mention the controversial PCA ruling at any point in the entire summit. This should, at least slightly, please China.

Some may argue that any mention of the South China Sea will strain PH-CN ties. However, judging from how Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua positively reacted to Duterte’s borderline offensive jokes during the latter’s National Heroes’ Day speech [Video], it seems that China and Duterte have built a certain level of trust that affords the latter more rhetorical leeway.

To top it all off, Duterte had the gall to stray from a prepared speech as he reportedly cited – in front of ASEAN and East Asian leaders – US atrocities in the Philippines from 1898 to 1946. One delegate described the atmosphere in the room as "quiet and shocked" [TV5].

Essentially, Duterte’s message is akin to “The Philippines will not be a US lapdog anymore, but we will not turn into China’s lapdog either.”

Duterte’s Geopolitical Risk-taking

Anti-Duterte camps may simply dismiss these actions as disturbing evidences of Duterte’s excessive testosterone levels or worse, sheer ignorance of international policy. However, if the probable consequences of his actions in the past several days are to be considered, it appears that Duterte is playing his cards effectively.

I spoke with International Relations scholar Sass Rogando Sasot of The Hague’s Leiden University about this issue.

Sasot explained that Duterte is trying to assert ASEAN leadership. ASEAN members are all aware of the Americans’ lack of moral ascendancy over ASEAN. ASEAN knows that the US economy is sputtering so it’s better to look for opportunities somewhere else, such as China. They see the Americans as an obstacle towards partnering with China, with the Philippines as the American lap dogs.

Among the ASEAN members, the Philippines and Thailand are, historically, staunch allies of the United States. Thailand, while still a US ally, is not as close to the US as it once was. That is, the Philippines is the only ASEAN member who believes in American Supremacy.

“Everyone is already orbiting China and the only thing that the US can dangle to the ASEAN countries is a security guarantee against China. But if the Philippines and China can patch things up, what would that US military bargaining chip be useful for?,” Sasot said.

That is, if we are friendly with China, then there’s no need for security anymore.

PH economy hurting?

Some camps say the Philippine stock market suggests at least a minor stock market crash because of the Duterte gaffe [Indep]. Recently, however, markets across Asia have been generally weak, and the PSEi has even experienced a modest 0.63 percent uptick yesterday [BW].

Moreover, only 25% of Filipinos are financially literate [MT], so such downturns in the stock market should not affect the average Filipino family as much as, say, an American household, if the same thing were to happen to Dow Jones.

Sasot said, “The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is dead. The US cannot even persuade the European Union to impose sanctions against China after the latter’s alleged cybercrimes.”

On the cybercrime issue, the US settled for a rather underwhelming truce with China [BBC].

“Duterte opened a new era in ASEAN politics,” Sasot said.

As to whether this new era is good or bad for the Philippines, Sasot and I agreed that while Duterte is on a very manageable track, it’s best to wait for things to unfold.  [ThinkingPinoy]

NOTE: Sass and I will be talking about this in the September 10th episode of KanTalk so she can correct me if necessary. The episode is embedded below:



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