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Duterte’s Gambit: the Philippines’s Pivot to China

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Beijing.

Come on in, the South China Sea water’s lovely, says one lover to another as they walk hand-in-hand and sing Bobby Darin’s “Somewhere Beyond The Sea”.

International diplomacy is not normally a place where romance blossoms but it is difficult to think that Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte is not head over heels about his country’s new relationship with China.

The change of heart for both the Philippines and China has come quickly. In July an international tribunal ruled overwhelmingly in favor of the Philippines and found against China’s expansion in the South China Sea. China reacted with scorn.

Now China seems to have won Duterte’s heart. Having assumed office in June, Duterte has just sent the US a Dear John letter from his four-day state visit, or honeymoon, in Beijing.

China’s maritime expansion has cost it friends in the region but if Beijing can wrestle Manila from Washington’s embrace or even drive a wedge between the US and the Philippines it will be seen for what it is, one of the most outrageously brilliant diplomatic coups in recent times. Henry Kissinger, a man revered in China for his role in the Nixon visit, would be proud as well as deeply concerned.

For the Philippines it means money. Chinese investment in transport and infrastructure is sorely needed as is Chinese demand for Philippine exports.

But there is also another issue here that is worth raising. Let us look at Duterte’s words.

“I announce my separation from the United States both in military but economics also. America has lost it,’’ he was quoted as saying in a transcript released by the Philippine Presidential Communications office on Friday.

“I mean, I realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world, China, Philippines and Russia.”

Now that is a pivot. As a statement of intent, it makes it difficult for the US to use its bases in the Philippines to engage in military activity. Consequently, Obama’s pivot to Asia is severely compromised.

Without a shot being fired and to the clinking of glasses at the official receptions for Durterte in Beijing, we have entered a new age in diplomacy.

The relationship between China and the Philippines will be tested, and Duterte’s move may not be too popular in the broadly US-sympathetic Philippines. It may even be that nothing much will come of it. Words are cheap at the first flush of any romance. But no adult Filipino or Filipina is unaware of the brutality that heralded US colonial rule at the beginning of the last century and a Philippine president taking an independent line from Washington is not the most unpopular thing a resident of Malacanang palce could do.

Five hundred years as a Spanish colony, five decades as an American one, history has not been kind to the Philippines. Centuries in a convent, decades in Hollywood. However, the people of the archipelago are not anti-American. Far fewer Philippine citizens want to work or live in China than in the US. Culturally, the Philippines, a largely Catholic country, is much closer to the US that it is China. But something has changed, and changed utterly. The dependability of the Philippines for the US can no longer be taken for granted. And that will please many in the Philippines even as they harbor doubts as to just what exactly is Duterte up to?

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Tom Clifford is a freelance journalist and can be reached at: cliffordtomsan@hotmail.com.

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