The Great Game in Southeast Asia

President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has unleashed many inflammatory and offensive comments against the U.S. and President Obama. All of these remarks have come in response to criticism from the U.S. over Duterte’s crackdown on drugs in the Philippines. Thousands of people have died in extrajudicial killings. Acting against the criticism, Duterte seeks to distance himself from the United States. He has stated that joint combat exercises will end. On a recent state visit to Beijing, the Duterte announced his goal to separate his country from military and economic dependence upon the United States. The Chinese have promised billions of dollars in infrastructure investments.

President Duterte’s actions obstruct the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia. The U.S. has a commitment to provide security for its allies Japan and the Philippines against a more powerful and active China. Duterte’s about-face is causing anxiety amongst policy elites in Washington. Some argue that the U.S. needs the Philippines for its strategic location. In an earlier time, U.S. officials might have Duterte removed. However, the U.S..states support for democracy abroad and such an action would likely destabilize the country.

Does America need the Philippines? A peaceful resolution of the conflict in the South China Sea is a win for the US. In the event that Duterte makes a deal with China, that’s one less problem for the United States. The U.S. originally enacted its joint security agreement to guard against Japanese military revival and influence from Russia. Today, China does not seek to conquer the Philippines. A few islands are not worth risking a costly war with China. President Duterte’s switch makes it easy for U.S. officials to put American interests first by stepping back from the situation.

dutertehandshakewithchinesepresidentbykingrodriguez
Duterte’s handshake with Chinese President Xi by King Rodriguez, Wikipedia Commons. 

Even before he was elected, Duterte proposed to cease joint patrols with the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea in exchange for the construction of a high-speed railway in the country. China seeks to increase industrial cooperation with other Asian nations. Chinese leadership employs shared economic prosperity to reduce regional frictions. Chinese investments and high-speed rail projects correspond with this tactic and represent a new balance of power in the region.

The U.S. has forgotten that money is a weapon; China has not. The U.S. should not sit idly by while China purchases influence. While polls show that Duterte remains widely popular in the Philippines, most Filipinos trust the US far more than China. Also, the U.S. is the Philippines’ second-biggest trading partner. And now, Duterte has moved to bury the hatchet with the United States, after Donald Trump’s election to the White House. The U.S. still too often reaches for the gun over the purse to advance its interests abroad. The result is an international stage tilting against U.S. interests. The United States must rely less upon the military and engage in war by other means.

 

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