Philippines has much to lose militarily in a shift away from US

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A Filipino marine guards the perimeter around the Antique airstrip in Panay, Philippines, during Balikatan April 11, 2016. (Wyatt Olson/Stars and Stripes)
From Stripes.com
A Filipino marine guards the perimeter around the Antique airstrip in Panay, Philippines, during Balikatan April 11, 2016. (Wyatt Olson/Stars and Stripes)

Philippines has much to lose militarily in a shift away from US

by: Wyatt Olson | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: October 28, 2016

America would suffer a setback in its rebalance to the Pacific if new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte moves ahead with his promised “separation” from the United States.

But the Philippines also has much to lose if, as Duterte has suggested, his country turns instead to China — even if that growing superpower has already promised the new president billions of dollars in loans.

While Duterte has backtracked a little and called the moves toward China — and possibly Russia — strictly economic, his anti-American rhetoric hasn’t wavered.

A shift in alliances could put at risk the Philippines’ role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, high ground in an island dispute with China, military modernization and the ongoing fight against separatist and jihadist groups in the south.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei all have unresolved disputes in the South China Sea with China, which has claimed nearly all of it. Under Duterte’s predecessor, the Philippines had led the charge against China’s sweeping claims and aggressive buildup by bringing the case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2013. This summer the tribunal ruled that China’s claims were largely invalid.

But Duterte, who assumed office in June, has expressed a desire to set aside the tribunal’s decision and negotiate with China over the islands and reefs.

“Sooner rather than later, Duterte will be held accountable if he trades his country’s territory and sovereignty for deals worth $13.5 billion,” Mohan Malik, an Asia expert with the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, said of the package that China offered during Duterte’s first overseas visit.

Even as Duterte nudges the Philippines into China’s orbit, he said, Vietnam is stepping up military cooperation with the United States and other “China-wary” countries.

Duterte recently assumed the year-long chair of the 10-nation ASEAN. While ASEAN countries such as Cambodia and Laos that generally side with China will likely greet Duterte as a fellow traveler, his decision to push away from America could be viewed as a betrayal by other claimants in the sea dispute, such as Vietnam and Malaysia.

“He can’t afford to also alienate Vietnam and Singapore and other countries in the region that have a stake in the dispute,” said Virginia Bacay Watson, a Philippines expert at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. “They can’t lose this legal high ground they’ve achieved against the Chinese.”

Read more at: http://www.stripes.com/1.436072

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