BC’s Tales of the Pacific | Duterte’s strategic shift

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“This is one of the geopolitical shocks of the decade.”

“Duterte is simply putting all his eggs into China’s basket.”

“ISIS and China are the biggest winners of President Duterte’s latest decision.”

THESE are a sample of the reactions to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to end a decades-long relationship with the United States. Let’s discuss what you need to know, and what questions are raised.

What: According to a report in The Strategist, “On February 11, 2020, President Rodrigo Duterte gave 180 days’ notice of the termination of the 20-plus-year-old U.S.-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement or VFA. The agreement provides the legal framework for U.S. forces to be stationed on rotation in the Philippines. Duterte’s termination of the VFA, which significantly weakens the U.S.-Philippines alliance, will be his lasting legacy.

The cancellation of the VFA is the most significant downgrading of the U.S.–Philippines alliance since the U.S. military was asked to vacate the Subic Bay naval base in the early 1990s.

Duterte’s move, which has no support from his foreign and defense ministers, appeared to be a direct response to the U.S.’s revocation of a visa for former police chief Ronald dela Rosa, who was the architect of Duterte’s “war on drugs.”

Why: Since taking office, Duterte has steadily strengthened his relationship with China while weakening that with the United States and the West. Early on, when a United Nations court ruled that China had acted illegally in the South China Sea, Duterte declined to push the issue any further, rendering the court’s decision moot. Later, when a human rights group associated with the European Union criticized Duterte’s war on drugs, which included illegal killings by police, Duterte held a press conference during which he gave the EU the middle finger.

Duterte is certainly decisive. He is one of the most talked about leaders in the Pacific region, maintaining an almost constant presence in American, Japanese, Australian and Chinese news cycles. But is it true, as is said, that there is no such thing as bad publicity?

Now What: If Duterte wanted to get everyone’s attention, he certainly has it. Governments and political-strategic think tanks from Tokyo to Canberra are scrambling to assess the impact this move away from the United States and what it will mean for the rest of Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific. What if Abu Sayyaf, backed by ISIS, resurges in the southern provinces? Can Vietnam, Australia, and Indonesia collectively resist Chinese expansion in their region without a strong American presence? Will an alliance between China and the Philippines spell the end of an independent Taiwan, or possibly precipitate a war over that beleaguered island nation? How far will Duterte go in his efforts to placate the Chinese? Will American bases be replaced with Chinese bases in the Philippines? What will that mean for China’s strategic reach? What will that mean for Philippines’ status as an independent country?

Whether you approve or disapprove of what Duterte has done, the impact of this decision on the Pacific community cannot be ignored.

BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.

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