During his recent official visit in China, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte showered his hosts with a series of unprecedented statements. Despite boldly soliciting financial assistance, the highly pragmatic president, had just taken a new twist within the geopolitical constellation by pronouncing a new alignment with China and a “separation” from the United States.
Venting his spleen about the long-standing intervention of the US Special Forces in his country, Duterte even frankly proposed to set up a new alliance together with China and Russia, as cited “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to President Vladimir Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world – China, Philippines, and Russia. It’s the only way.”
A case in point is, even though Xi Jinping hailed the visit as “a new starting point” in bilateral relations, from the perspective of Chinese elites, the likelihood that China would pioneer the realization of the “triangle pivot” seems low. Why?
Nothing could be more powerful than the history to reshape Beijing’s policy-making process. Firstly, Duterte’s “invitation” has prompted an exclusiveness (Russia-China-Philippines) by setting “countries against the US” as the harbinger. For Chinese elites such a proposal to rebalance the US preponderance, the exclusiveness would never be the solution, as it is considerably a brinkmanship. This context is strongly related to the Chinese strategic culture in bringing the value of an alliance down a notch and hailing inclusiveness.
Theoretically speaking, the absence of the security alliance specifically marks a high point in Chinese security policy and indirectly vindicates the superiority of its strategic culture. Amidst the Century of Humiliation in Chinese history, the belligerent and aggressive security alliance had exploited and attacked a weak and defenceless China, where they forcibly asked China to sign a series of devastating agreements and destroyed the long-standing “civilization” without any restoration efforts.
Accordingly, the Middle Kingdom is prone to blame the term of “alliance”, including the deteriorating US-Philippines Security Alliance, as the product of “Western offensive-minded strategic culture” and the legacy of Cold War, that formidably contrasts with the Chinese peaceful and benevolent strategic culture.
Thus, in practice, the “Strategic Partnership”, a diverse multilateralism, and the Belt and Road initiatives are perhaps the most vivid example of how benevolent and inclusive the Chinese strategy is, in which Philippines is expected to become a more active player within the benevolent cooperation, instead of blatantly establishing an exclusive forum or perhaps a security alliance with Moscow and Beijing.
Secondly, Duterte’s treacherous farewell to Obama and amicable greetings to Putin is not sufficiently convincing for China to materialize “the triangle pivot”. China insofar lackadaisically set up a formal alliance with Russia and indeed, it would never want to more imbroglio by letting Philippines in.
Even so, while Xi recently has been seeking to make Russia a major strategic partner, he nevertheless is reluctant to improve the relationship to one of reliable alliance status while US has already inked about sixty full-fledged treaty allies that involve military cooperation. Evidently, China’s armed forces conduct their exchanges and cooperation with the Russian military in accordance with the framework of the Sino-Russian Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.
A reluctance to establish the alliance is basically constituted from a full-blown concern: the fear of abandonment. Tracing back to the past, the only alliance experience China has ever had – the Sino-Soviet bloc – has unfortunately yielded China a bitter pill to swallow. Following the spirit of Mao Zedong’s “lean to one side” paradigm, on Febuary 14, 1950, China and the Soviet Union signed the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance, that reiterated 30 years of mutual defense that promised if one partner was attacked by a third country the other side must go all out to provide military and other assistance.
Lamentably, in the second half of the 1950s, Nikita Khrushchev’s attempts to reach an accommodation with the West, and Moscow’s refusal to support China during its conflict with India in the second half of 1959 and early 1960s, inevitably deteriorated the alliance.
Following the rising tension on the Sino-Soviet border, the ever-intense alliance finally collapsed, notoriously framed as “the Sino-Soviet Split”. Surprisingly, in Chinese character, it is phrased as Zhong Su Jiao E (中苏交恶), which literally stands for a negative connotation. None of the four characters exactly refers to the word of “Split”. Zhong Su (中苏) stands for Sino-Soviet, Jiao (交) is the relationship, and interestingly, E (恶) means vicious and harmful – simply demonstrates Chinese big disappointment over a strongly deceptive alliance.
In this sense, the lesson-learned would remind Beijing that Duterte’s China lovefest is double-edged. On the one hand, under Duterte’s administration, the Philippines simply have recognized China’s “benevolent character” over the US’ aggressiveness in the region so that there would be a more fruitful discussion on the South China Sea issue and economic relations in the near future. On the other hand, a very rational Xi, would be highly cautious with respect to the Philippines stunning about-face, which have a greater tendency to betray their counterparts. If the Philippines would willingly let the 50 years old Mutual Defense Treaty hit the nadir, how about the longevity of “the triangle pivot” which has just been randomly mentioned?
*Trissia Wijaya is currently a MEXT Scholar in the Graduate School of International Relations at Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, Japan. Her research interests primarily lie on the international relations in the Asia-Pacific, Sino-Indonesia relations, and foreign policy.
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