Updated Oct. 4, 2016
With the exception of the Vietnam War, America’s alliance system in East Asia has helped keep the peace for more than half a century.
Now it is in trouble. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s progression from abusive name-calling to a more broadly articulated anti-American hostility has been swift and stunning. It threatens one of Washington’s crucial Asian alliances and sets back U.S. President Barack Obama ’s signature “pivot” to the region.
China is jubilant over Mr. Duterte’s cooling relations with Washington after it clashed for years with the Philippine leader’s predecessor.
“The clouds are fading away,” China’s ambassador to Manila, Zhao Jianhua, said at a Chinese National Day reception. “The sun is rising over the horizon, and will shine beautifully on the new chapter of bilateral relations.”
At first it looked like a fit of pique: One month ago, Mr. Duterte called Mr. Obama a “son of a whore” over U.S. criticism of his war on drugs that has strewn the country with thousands of corpses. His rage quickly hardened.
A few days later Mr. Duterte proposed removing American military advisers from the troubled southern region of Mindanao. Then he declared he was shopping in China and Russia for military supplies readily available in the U.S. Mr. Duterte will lead a Philippine business delegation to Beijing this month.
And last week he declared an end to joint U.S.-Philippine naval exercises in the South China Sea to avoid provoking China. The last exercises, ostensibly, began on Tuesday.
Mr. Duterte’s outbursts come at a moment of rising doubt in America about the country’s role in the world. Donald Trump thinks that alliances are a bad deal for America—essentially a form of charity for countries rich enough to pay for their own defense. He seems to be in tune with growing numbers of Americans. Asked in 2013 whether the U.S. “Should mind its own business internationally” 52% of respondents to a Pew poll said “yes.”
In their recent book “America Abroad: the United States’ Global Role in the 21st Century,” Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, two academics at Dartmouth College, say that “the vast majority” of scholars who write on American grand strategy believe the time has come for America to pull back. They argue against such a move, saying it would lead to arms races and nuclear proliferation.
Now, Mr. Duterte is going a step further, calling into question an accord to let U.S. forces use Philippine military bases. That landmark 2014 deal was poignant in that Manila ejected U.S. troops in the early 1990s. It sent a powerful message: America is back.
Specifically, it was back in Southeast Asia, the focus of Washington’s “pivot” aimed at countering China’s rising power. There was little doubt about America’s commitment to Japan, where the Seventh Fleet is headquartered or to South Korea, home to 28,500 American service personnel. Southeast Asian countries, however, felt neglected as they faced China’s rapidly expanding naval and militia armadas.
Mr. Obama offered diplomatic reassurance and military assistance. To the Philippines, America’s only ally with territorial claims in the South China Sea, he sent decommissioned Coast Guard cutters, radar and other equipment to defend its long coastline. He eased a U.S. embargo on lethal weapons sales to Vietnam, which has clashed with China over offshore oil and fishing rights. Mr. Obama nudged Myanmar—a virtual Chinese client—along a path to democracy.
Mr. Duterte says he’s pushing a more independent foreign policy but still supports the U.S. alliance. His inflammatory rhetoric, though, suggests he’s trying to blow up a friendship. Last week, in a bizarre twist of logic, he invoked Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust to defend his antidrug campaign.
For China, Mr. Duterte’s turn is sweet revenge for its humiliation this year by an international tribunal in The Hague that struck down its claims to almost the entire South China Sea in a case brought by Mr. Duterte’s predecessor.
Chinese diplomats had branded Manila the chief recalcitrant in a part of Asia from which they expect deference.
If the Pentagon is alarmed, it isn’t showing it. Support for the American alliance runs high among both the Philippine public and armed forces; ditching America for China would be politically risky for Mr. Duterte. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter told sailors last week the Philippine alliance was “ironclad.”
Meanwhile, China has found a new target for its browbeating: Singapore, which isn’t a U.S. ally but hosts American warships and spy planes.
The Global Times, a Communist Party-controlled tabloid, recently took aim at the city-state for allegedly trying to insert harder language about the South China Sea into a communiqué at the end of a summit of nonaligned nations. Singapore’s envoy to China took the rare step of publicly criticizing the paper for an “irresponsible report replete with fabrications.”
Expect more of that kind of pressure from Beijing. A key lesson that China is likely to draw from Mr. Duterte’s geopolitical about-face: Unrelenting attacks on America’s regional friends and allies eventually pay off.
Write to Andrew Browne at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tags: America Abroad: the United States’ Global Role in the 21st Century, Ash Carter, China, China and Russia military supplies, China’s rising power, Duterte, Global Times, Japan, Obama, Philippines, pivot to Asia, rebalance to Asia, Singapore, son of a whore, South China Sea, South Korea, Stephen G. Brooks, U. S., William C. Wohlforth, Xi Jinping