Duterte’s ‘Rubicon’ hype
For all its fury and high drama, President Duterte’s declared foreign policy shift from the American to the Chinese-Russian orbit is still in the realm of acoustics: more bark than bite.
So far, months after his ringing words to “cross the Rubicon” and thereafter cut the Philippines’ military and security ties with its traditional and vital ally, the United States, there has been no substantive, palpable action in the country’s domestic policy and its extension, foreign affairs. The Philippine ship of state may be buffeted by abrasive rhetoric, but it remains on the same course and destination since the 1970s: a continuing search for more pragmatic, more independent, or less entangled relations with the rest of the world, in the midst of global realities, uncertainties and turbulence.
But this situation could change dramatically if the President does what he has threatened to do: for starters, to join China and Russia in military exercises in Southeast Asia and to scuttle the annual PH-US Balikatan war games provided for by the two nations’ Mutual Defense Treaty, Visiting Forces Agreement and Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. Then his thoughts and deeds would merge into a credible and coherent foreign policy paradigm, with potentially dangerous implications to the Philippines.
Let’s face it: America is an empire. It may be on the decline, but it is expected to remain in the foreseeable decades the most powerful nation on earth. Washington will not take kindly to humiliating insults backed by concrete action that threaten vital US interests. The South China Sea, through which pass more than $5 trillion worth of trade annually is certainly vital to US interests, as well as to those of the two developing Asian hegemons, China and Japan. And as China continues to militarize the strategic area, in defiance of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling that its “nine-dash line” is illegal, the dangerous arms race in the region is expected to intensify.
To date, despite all the alarming media reports, America and China appear to be just “shadow boxing,” flexing military muscle for domestic consumption but reluctant to cross each other’s red line. Here’s why: America has encircled China with powerful containment military forces since the end of World War II, and thus unofficially recognizes China’s right as a coastal state to exercise some presence over the seas and features vital to its economy and national security, provided Beijing respects freedom of navigation and refrains from intolerable belligerence.
The strategic partnership between the two rivals, marked by the strong dependence of China’s exports on the vast American market and its huge investments in US bonds (over $1 trillion worth), also constitutes strong brakes to a shooting war in Asia.
With China’s unrelenting socioeconomic problems, triggered by the Wall Street crash in 2008 which greatly hobbled export-dependent economies like itself and Russia, it becomes even more urgent for Beijing to demonstrate strength through relatively safe but effective symbolic display of power in the South China-West Philippine Sea. President Xi Jinping needs to unify his country as China’s economic weakness translates to shuttered malls, vacant buildings, rising debts and domestic unrest. China’s economic and maritime master plan, dubbed “One Belt, One Road,” is its ambitious strategy to kill two birds with one stone: boost its troubled economy and ensure a reserve trade route with the rest of the world if, in the event of war, America decides to close the maritime choke points in the East and South China Seas.
During such a crisis, calling on Russia to be the Philippines’ “protector,” as Mr. Duterte recently did aboard a visiting Russian naval vessel, is hardly an option. President Vladimir Putin couldn’t even protect a Russian jetliner with 224 passengers on board from being blown up by terrorists over Egypt in 2015, or his own ambassador from assassination in Turkey last month.
Narciso Reyes Jr. ([email protected]) is an international book author and former diplomat. He lived in Beijing in 1978-81 as bureau chief of the Philippine News Agency.
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