Mon, Oct 24, 2016 - Page 6 News List

Duterte’s rebalancing could be an opportunity

By Joseph Tse-Hei Lee 李榭熙

Lord Palmerston said: “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” This is particularly true for the Philippines, whose President Rodrigo Duterte shocked the world when last week he announced his intention to break strategic and economic ties with the US and form an alliance with China.

While Duterte has a tendency to make outrageous public statements that he later retracts, his actions manifest a nationalist sentiment among Philippine elites and represents a new attempt to pursue an independent foreign policy.

This fiasco caused a great deal of confusion in Washington, Manila and other East Asian capitals. First, Duterte’s announcement came as a significant victory for China on the eve of the 80th anniversary of the Chinese Red Army’s Long March — a series of military retreats by Chinese Communists to evade the hostile pursuit of Chinese Nationalist soldiers during the early 1930s.

A week ago, Beijing was still coming to grips with the aftermath of diplomatic setbacks like South Korea’s deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system against North Korea and the July ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, the Netherlands, that rebuked China’s historic claims over the South China Sea. Duterte’s rapprochement has re-energized Beijing’s ongoing efforts to lay claim to and militarize the area.

Second, Duterte completely reversed former Philippine president Benigno Aquino III’s tough stand on maritime sovereignty issues. When The Hague urged Beijing to suspend further expansion into the Philippines’ proclaimed territories, the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島) and Mischief Reef (Meiji Reef, 美濟礁), it was a legal victory for Manila. For months, Beijing has been contemplating whether to withdraw from the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea or to adhere to international law and reconcile with the Philippines.

When Duterte publicly acknowledged Beijing’s claims to maritime resources in the South China Sea in exchange for US$24 billion in Chinese investment and loan pledges, he gave China a face-saving platform to escape the legal crisis.

Third, some officials in the West have been frustrated by Duterte’s adventurism, seeing him as a wild card and have demonized him as “a [North Korean Leader} Kim Jong-un, minus the nukes.”

Whether Duterte is playing China against the US and Japan to extract further gains remains to be seen.

Politically savvy and pragmatic, Duterte understands that Washington has little room to maneuver. If it sets out to downgrade ties with Manila in retaliation, it gives Duterte a reason to reassess the mutual defense treaty of 1951 and prompt fresh anxieties for Tokyo, Seoul and other nations about their strategic agreements with the US.

As Washington has been strengthening ties with traditional allies in the Asia-Pacific, many Asian nations are seizing the opportunity to reset their own diplomatic and developmental agendas in a highly fluid landscape of geopolitics. Duterte’s Philippines is no exception. This regional rebalancing could prompt the next US president to rethink the East Asian strategy and identify new partners.

In this regard, Taiwan might want to reprioritize its “new southbound policy” from an economic to a geopolitical strategy. Besides looking for business opportunities, Taiwan should position itself as a new stabilizing force and support US allies in creating a multilateral platform to address maritime sovereignty disputes. Only by doing so can Taiwan effectively respond to China’s renewed international campaign to isolate the nation.

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