“Your honors, in this venue I announce my separation from the United States…both in military and economics also.”
Thus Philippines President Rodrigo “The Punisher” Duterte unleashed a geopolitical earthquake encompassing Eurasia and reverberating all across the Pacific Ocean.
And talk about choosing his venue with aplomb; right in the heart of the Rising Dragon, no less.
Capping his state visit to Beijing, Duterte then coined the mantra – pregnant with overtones – that will keep ringing all across the global South; “America has lost.”
And if that was not enough, he announced a new alliance – Philippines, China and Russia – is about to emerge; “there are three of us against the world.”
Predictably, the Beltway establishment in the “indispensable nation” went bananas, reacting as “puzzled” or in outright anger, dispersing the usual expletives on the “crude populist”, “unhinged leader”.
The bottom line is that it takes a lot of balls for the leader of a poor, developing country, in Southeast Asia or elsewhere, to openly defy the hyperpower. Yet what Duterte is gaming at is pure realpolitik; if he prevails, he will be able to deftly play the US against China to the benefit of Filipino interests.
“The springtime of our relationship”
It did start with a bang; during Duterte’s China visit, Manila inked no less than $13 billion in deals with Beijing – from trade and investment to drug control, maritime security and infrastructure.
Beijing pulled out all stops to make Duterte feel welcomed.
President Xi Jinping suggested Manila and Beijing should “temporarily put aside” the intractable South China Sea disputes and learn from the “political wisdom” of history – as in give space to diplomatic talks. After all, the two peoples were “blood-linked brothers.”
Duterte replied in kind; “Even as we arrive in Beijing close to winter, this is the springtime of our relationship,” he told Xi at the Great Hall of the People.
China is already the Philippines’ second-largest trade partner, behind Japan, the US and Singapore. Filipino exports to these three are at roughly 42.7 percent of the total, compared to 22.1 to China/Hong Kong. Imports from China are roughly 16.1 percent of the total. Even as trade with China is bound to rise, what really matters for Duterte is massive Chinese infrastructure investment.
What this will mean in practice is indeed ground-breaking; the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) will definitely be involved in Philippine economic development; Manila will be more involved in promoting smooth China-ASEAN relations in all sorts of regional issues (it takes the rotating chair of ASEAN in 2017); and the Philippines will be more integrated in the New Silk Roads, a.k.a. One Belt, One Road (OBOR).
Three strikes; no wonder the US is out. And there’s even a fourth strike, embedded in Duterte’s promise that
he will soon end military cooperation with the US, despite the opposition of part of the Filipino armed forces.
Watch the First Island Chain
The build-up had already been dramatic enough. On the eve of his meeting with Xi, talking to members of the Filipino community in Beijing, Duterte said, “it’s time to say goodbye” to the US; “I will not ask but if they (the Chinese) offer and if they’ll ask me, do you need this aid? [I will say] Of course, we are very poor.”
Then the clincher; “I will not go to America anymore … We will just be insulted there.”
The US was the colonial power in the Philippines from 1899 to 1942. Hollywood permeates the collective unconscious. English is the lingua franca – side by side with tagalog. But the tentacles of Uncle Sam’s “protection” racket are not exactly welcomed. Two of the largest components of the US Empire of Bases were located for decades in the Philippines; Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay Naval Base.
Clark, occupying 230 square miles, with 15,000 people, was busy to death during the Vietnam War – the main hub for men and hardware in and out of Saigon. Then it turned into one of those Pentagon “forward operating” HQs. Subic, occupying 260 square miles, was as busy as Clark. It was the forward operating base for the US 7th Fleet.
Already in 1987, before the end of the Cold War, the RAND corporation was alarmed by the loss of both bases; that would be “devastating for regional security”. Devastating” in the – mythical – sense of “defending the interests of ASEAN” and the “security of the sea-lanes”.
Translation; the Pentagon and the US Navy would lose a key instrument of pressure over ASEAN, as protecting the “security of the sea-lanes” was always the key justification for those bases.
And lose they eventually did; Clark was closed down in November 1991, and Subic in November 1992.
It took years for China to sense an opening – and profit from it; after all during the 1990s and the early 2000s, the absolute priority was breakneck speed internal development. But then Beijing did the math; no more US bases opened untold vistas as far as the First Island Chain is concerned.
The First Island Chain is a product, over millennia, of the fabulous tectonic forces of the Ring of Fire; a chain of islands running from southern Japan in the north to Borneo in the south. For Beijing, they work as a sort of shield for the Chinese eastern seaboard; if this chain is secure, Asia is secure.
For all practical purposes, Beijing considers the First Island Chain as a non-negotiable Western Pacific demarcation zone – ideally with no foreign (as in US) interference. The South China Sea – which in parts is characterized by Manila as the Western Philippine Sea – is inside the First Island Chain. So to really secure the First Island Chain, the South China Sea must be free of foreign interference.
And here we are plunged at the heart of arguably the key 21st century hotspot in Asian geopolitics – the main reason for the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia.
The US Navy so far counted on the Philippines to oppose the proverbial, hyped up “Chinese aggression” in the South China and East China seas. The neocon/neoliberalcon industrial-military complex fury against “unhinged” Duterte’s game-changer is that containing China and ruling over the First Island Chain has been at the core of US naval strategy since the beginning of the Cold War.
Beijing, meanwhile, will have all the time needed to polish its strategic environment. This has nothing to do with “freedom of navigation” and protecting sea-lanes; everyone needs South China Sea cross-trade. It’s all about China – perhaps within the next ten years – being able to deny “access” to the US Navy in the South China Sea and inside the First Island Chain.
Duterte’s game-changing “America has lost” is just a new salvo in arguably the key 21st century geopolitical thriller. A Supreme Court justice in Manila, for instance, has warned Duterte that, were he to give up sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal, he could be impeached. That won’t happen; Duterte wants loads of Chinese trade and investment, not abdicate from sovereignty. He’d rather be ready to confront being demonized by the hyperpower as much as the late Hugo Chavez was in his heyday.
This piece first appeared at Strategic Culture.