President Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte made a big splash in the international scene by declaring that he was pursuing an “independent” foreign policy. Then he declared his “separation” from the U.S.; threatened to terminate military treaties with the U.S. and proposed defense alliance with China and Russia. The world leaders did not bat an eye. But when his campaign against drug lords turned bloody – more than 3,000 drug pushers and users in less than 60 days – U.S. President Barack Obama indicated some concerns. Digong didn’t take it too well and called Obama “son of a whore.”
Obama nonchalantly ignored him, saying: “I have seen some of those colorful statements in the past. Clearly he’s a colorful guy.”
But the newly inaugurated U.S. President Donald J. Trump took a different tact. He called Digong while he was still president-elect and they talked for several minutes. He praised Digong on his campaign against illegal drugs, saying he was doing it the “right way.”
There seems to be great expectations from a Trump presidency, which could give U.S.-Philippines relations some room for “reconciliation” particularly now that Obama has left office.
On the international scene, expect a great deal of geopolitical movements in an emerging multi-polar world order with the U.S., Russia, and China competing for dominance in world affairs.
While Trump seems comfortable with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he has irked Chinese President Xi Jinping when Trump questioned the “One-China” policy that has maintained U.S.-China relations on an even keel for the past four decades. Trump made it known that he is not committed to the “One-China” policy.
“Everything is under negotiation, including One-China,” he said. Beijing angrily responded, saying that the “One-China” policy is “non-negotiable.”
Trump also accused China of currency manipulation and unfair trade practices. In addition, he questioned China’s reclamation of seven reefs in the South China Sea and building militarized artificial islands around them.
With the Senate expected to confirm Trump’s nomination of Rex “T-Rex” Tillerson as Secretary of State, the situation in the South China Sea could spiral into a war between the U.S. and China. During his Senate confirmation hearing, Tillerson likened China’s illegal occupation of several reefs in the Spratly archipelago to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
He said that the White House needed to send China a “clear signal” that such activities had to stop. He also said that the U.S. would defend “international territories” in the strategic waterway and block China’s access to these islands.
Tillerson’s blunt warnings and proposed actions did not dwell too well with Beijing who told Washington to tread carefully “to avoid harming the peace and stability of the South China Sea.” Declaring that China has “irrefutable” sovereignty – China used the term “indisputable” before – over the disputed islands, China’s state-owned media warned that any attempt to prevent China from accessing her interests in the region would risk sparking a “large-scale war.”
Interestingly, China had already deployed “significant” weapons systems, including anti-aircraft and anti-missile system, on these islands.
Meanwhile, the newly Senate-confirmed Secretary of Defense, Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis, will be going on a three-day visit to Japan and South Korea on February 1 to reassure them of Washington’s commitment to the security of the volatile Asia-Pacific. There are 28,500 American troops in South Korea and 50,000 in Japan.
But while Japan and South Korea welcomed the deployment of U.S. forces to their countries, the Philippines was wary of American presence in the Philippines, which has three defense agreements with the U.S., including a Mutual Defense Treaty. President Duterte whose hatred of the U.S. has led him to distance from the U.S. and got closer to China and Russia, wants to get rid of all foreign troops out of the country within two years and that he was willing to revoke base-hosting agreements with the U.S.
Last January 26, the Philippines’ Defense Secretary Gen. Delfin Lorenzana – concerned that the Philippines will be caught in the middle of a U.S.-China conflict in the south China Sea – said in a press briefing, “I’m waiting for my counterpart, Secretary Mattis. I’d like to talk to him to get his sense about these [security] policies because he will be the one to implement that.”
Then he said something that was never mentioned before: The Philippines should “maintain neutrality in its foreign policy.” Huh?
Neutrality and mutual defense
Lorenzana said, “We are very wary. Let’s see. We will think very hard if it will be implemented by the US, those pronouncements that they will prevent the Chinese from retaining these islands. We will react accordingly when the time comes, when they will start to do that… We might be caught in the middle.” Then he added, “In the first place, how can they [Chinese] prevent them [Americans] from going there? They [Americans] are already there…. We will have to discuss with the National Security Council if and when the Americans will really come to the South China Sea and implement those pronouncements.” There is not much that the Philippines could do to stop a U.S.-China conflict in the South China Sea. However, if war breaks out between the U.S. and China, the U.S. could invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and the Philippines would be expected to come to her aid. And this was what Lorenzana was trying to avoid when he mentioned a “neutral” foreign policy.
But in a press conference on January 27, Lorenzana said the U.S.-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which allows American troops to build facilities in Philippine military bases – is “still on.”
“According to the Pentagon, they will start constructing some facilities in the EDCA chosen camps… Basa Air Base, Bautista Air Base in Palawan… I think the first they will develop is Basa… with a runway and put up facilities also for their troops. Mga imbakan nila ng mga gamit nila kung nandito sila [It will be a storage for their equipment here],” Lorenzana said, adding the American troops could come back anytime should they decide to leave. He also said construction of facilities may start anytime as construction costs were already included in the U.S. fiscal year of 2017.
Lorenzana also reportedly said, “Aside from Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) and Philippines-U.S. Amphibious Landing Exercise (PHIBLEX), other military exercises with the U.S. troops will continue.”
Now, that’s a total turnaround in just a day – from pursuing a “neutral” foreign policy to total commitment to implementing EDCA and continuing with joint military exercises, particularly the Balikatan or shoulder-to-shoulder joint exercises.
Which makes one wonder: Did Trump call Digong secretly in the middle of the night reassuring him of Uncle Sam’s commitment to the security of the Philippines?
Or was it just a “guni-guni” (imagination) during one of Digong’s sleepless nights? Or did Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe make good of his pledge of $6.88 billion aid package when they had breakfast at Digong’s private residence in Davao City? And didn’t Abe and Digong agree that the Philippines, Japan, and the United States would work cooperatively together? That’s a lot of questions but the answers are clearly manifested in recent geopolitical movements that translate favorably to the mutual benefit of the Philippines and America. Isn’t that what “mutual defense” is all about?
The bottom line is: “Neutrality” and “mutual defense” are mutually exclusive. They cannot be applied together; it’s either one or the other. If Digong wants to pursue a “neutral” foreign policy, he has to terminate all defense agreements with the U.S. and start buying warships, submarines, and fighter jets for the defense of the Philippines.