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US ‘protection’ of the Philippines

by January 20, 2018 General

I wonder where the present US Ambassador to the Philippines was when Duterte made the dramatic statement in China that “Philippine foreign policy from hereon would be independent.” If I remember right the President even said it would separate from the US but will be friends with it as well as other countries as it can if it is in the Philippines’ interest.

It was a dramatic statement for more respectable relations between our two countries. Duterte said bluntly he wants to develop new relations (not necessarily hostile) between a former colonizer and a colony. The new relations with mutual respect will have many nuances that will play out in the Duterte administration. These nuances will vary from big and small issues – from the role of NED to the return of Balangiga bells etc.  US diplomats should be conscious these issues will have to be resolved against the background of Duterte’s most important statement since he became President.

It was met with applause around the world because by saying so, Duterte changed the balance of power in the world. He was praised for his courage and frankness. With one statement in the right place and time he became a leader to be listened to. The Philippines became a powerful nation not because of wealth or armaments but by a statement that changed the balance of power in the world.

That is why US Ambassador Sung Kim’s recent statement on ”protecting the Philippines” and that it will be ready to defend it was clearly out of tune.  

“The United States is not ‘retreating’ and giving space to China to dominate the Asia-Pacific region, US Ambassador Sung Kim said. There may be issues between China and the US but the Philippines should be given more space to develop a different track if it is to be truly independent.

“Washington remains fully committed to the region,” Kim said. He disagreed that the shift in US policy and attitude toward Asia will open the doors for China to dominate the region. That may be America’s concern but he should not have used the defense of the Philippines as his starting point.

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The new US ambassador’s statement insinuates that we are back to the policy of the Aquino government for the US to use our country as the basis for their staying in the region. It also encourages unfriendly relations between China and the Philippines.

“There has been a lot of commentary on this but the US is fully committed to the region. We are not going anywhere. What’s important are trade and security. I don’t think it’s accurate to say we’re retreating.” This is an old tune.

The new tune is how countries especially former colonies like the Philippines will play out relations with a former colonizer like US. It will be a difficult balancing act in the Duterte era.

And more importantly how these new relations will relate to other countries like China and Russia. 

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Asked about a situation where the US would more actively support the Philippines under the Mutual Defense Treaty, the ambassador said: “There’s absolutely no ambiguity about our commitment to defend the Philippines.” Fine but he quickly adds to explain US motives with overtones of hostility.

In promoting and protecting international rights such as freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight, he said “this is not solely for US benefit.”

“So much trade goes through that area that if we don’t protect freedom of navigation, I think we will all suffer. We would do whatever is necessary, including conducting freedom of navigation exercises, to make sure that we promote those rights,” Kim said.

China has long replied that freedom of navigation will continue as it has always been then and now.

 “We firmly believe that sustained US leadership is needed to uphold the sovereignty of states and push back against actions that undermine a fair and open rules-based order,” Kim said.

The US has been clear with China “that we don’t accept unilateral actions by claimants aimed at changing the status quo while issues of sovereignty remain unresolved.”

“It is in our national interest to work with all of (our) allies and partners to ensure the Indo-Pacific remains a place of peace, stability and growing prosperity. It cannot become a region of disorder and conflict,” he said.

One of the cardinal principles of President Duterte’s foreign policy is to make as many friends as we can. It is also one of the reasons why he won. Many agreed it was the right approach to work with the US for the country’s interest.

“In international relations, being an ally of the United States doesn’t mean being confrontational against China, ASEAN countries like Singapore and Malaysia were cited as countries that are close to the US but are very skillful in balancing their relations with the two big powers.

The US-Philippine Mutual Defense treaty does not assure that the US will defend the Philippines when Philippine security is threatened in the South China area.

The US has its own interests with China. 

Vietnam, like the Philippines has territorial disputes with China, but it keeps open its bilateral engagement with high level visits and military consultations. It has carried out joint fishery patrols with China since 2006.

Despite the dispute Philippines and China has also developed multi-faceted engagements and expanded common interests while keeping differences under control under Duterte.

Under the Aquino government the Philippines was dragged into diplomatic animosities including the managed decision in the Hague. We were on the brink of a regional war that was fueled when the US military bases were allowed back to the Philippines, making us an immediate target of armed attacks.”

We certainly could do more about implementing the Duterte foreign policy platform and draw as many foreign countries as friends other than China or the US.

President Rodrigo Duterte has practiced what he preaches despite his “colorful” language. He has often been misunderstood as having an unfavorable attitude toward the United States.

Take note Ambassador Kim. As Duterte said in China we hope to become more liberated and open for partnership to other countries worldwide, particularly with China and Russia.