There is an intensifying and increasingly shrill debate as to whether or not the U.S. and China are on the brink of a new kind of Cold War. Those who argue the negative say that one major difference between their rivalry and that of the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the Cold War is that the US-China struggle has not manifested itself in proxy wars. https://www.aei.org/publication/is-this-the-beginning-of-a-new-cold-war/
Others say ‘perhaps not yet’, but that it is sowing the seeds of proxy conflicts between and within some states. They point out that China and the U.S. are increasingly vying for influence in several countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, in contexts that could eventually lead to violent domestic conflict. The Philippines is a good example.
Philippines domestic politics are increasingly racked and rent by a polarizing debate over its policy toward China, particularly regarding its claims in the South China Sea.
The Philippines, under the administration of then President Benigno Aquino –with U.S. political and legal support–brought the question of the legality of China’s jurisdictional claims in the South China Sea before an international arbitration panel. In July 2016, the panel ruled overwhelmingly in the Philippines’ favor.
But then newly elected Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte abruptly pivoted Philippine foreign policy away from the U.S. and towards China. One aspect of this pivot was that he did not try to take immediate advantage of the panel’s ruling and instead forged a positive relationship with China gaining China’s political cooperation and possibilities of economic largesse.
But this policy shift outraged international and domestic legal idealists as well as Philippine Americanophiles, sparking bitter opposition. This has resulted in a major domestic political struggle between factions favoring preferential relations with one or the other country.
Filipino-American ties run deep and wide. The Philippines is a US ally by virtue of a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and harbors US military troops and assets. But Philippine pride and patriotism still permeate the Philippines political psyche. There is lingering resentment among some elite regarding US treatment of its people and their culture during its nearly 50 years of colonial rule. They are wary of neocolonial attitudes and approaches by the U.S.
China has made remarkable political inroads since Duterte’s election. It has responded to Duterte’s ‘friendliness’ by stepping up its trade, aid and foreign investment, particularly for Duterte’s favored infrastructure projects.
Although the U.S. and Duterte’s opposition warn of a China debt trap that could undermine Philippines’ sovereignty and independence, China’s foreign investment is still small compared to that from Japan and the U.S. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-07-25/china-s-24-billion-promise-to-duterte-still-hasn-t-materialized
China also gained an advantage with Duterte when the U.S. criticized Duterte’s extra judicial war on drugs enraging the government. China tacitly supported the effort. The historic visit of China President Xi Jinping in November and an agreement to try and agree on joint development in areas claimed by both are, in China Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s view like “a rainbow after the rain” regarding China-Philippine relations. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/19/world/asia/xi-jinping-rodrigo-duterte-philippines-china.html
China’s successes have stimulated a renewed effort by the U.S. and its Philippine sympathizers to preserve what is left of the US soft power advantage there. There is a convergence—coincidental or not—between Philippines opponents of the democratically elected Duterte and some nationalistic US analysts.
Indeed, in America there is growing concern that Duterte’s volte-face marked a tipping point in the decline of US soft power influence on Asia. Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has concluded that Duterte’s renovated foreign policy “is a potential disaster” [because] “China could either neutralize this vital American ally, or even potentially turn the Philippines into a PLA Navy base _ _.” http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/sns-wp-philippines-comment-f3cf30b6-97ad-11e6-bb29-bf2701dbe0a3-20161021-story.html
Patrick Cronin and Richard Javad Heydarian published a piece in The National Interest entitled “Presidents Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte Have Obscured the True Significance of the U.S.-Philippines Bilateral Alliance.”
Their views are typical of US conservatives and reflect in part a neocolonial perspective on the history of U.S.-Philippines relations and in part a refusal to recognize reality. They extol the Philippines rating as “the most pro-American nation on earth” seemingly confirming that they approve of and want to maintain the Philippines subservient position in the relationship.
But Duterte and his supporters defy this perspective. Recently he reportedly said ‘ the Philippines is tied to a mutual defense treaty with the United States, which [is the main concern that ] keeps it from telling the Western superpower to stay away’. https://businessmirror.com.ph/duterte-to-push-for-coc-in-the-south-china-sea-at-all-costs/ He also said that”_ _ the threat of confrontation and trouble in the waterway came from outside the region” meaning primarily the U.S. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/2173174/south-china-sea-asean-beijing-continue-work-towards-code
Another example is Heydarian’s latest take on the China-Philippines relationship https://asia.nikkei.com/Opinion/Philippines-China-after-the-rainbow-more-rain which is consistent with his and others’ earlier opinion pieces, particularly those published by staff and affiliates of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. https://www.cnas.org/publications/commentary/this-is-how-america-and-the-philippines-can-upgrade-their-alliance ; https://ippreview.com/index.php/Blog/single/id/644.html
Heydarian seems to think that Xi Jinping’s visit to the Philippines—and indeed, Duterte’s policy of rapprochement with China– have been a failure. He postulates that “fear of political backlash in the Philippines where large numbers are opposed to any resource-sharing agreement with China” contributed to the failure to reach a concrete agreement to move ahead with joint development. He also highlights the Philippines military’s skepticism of China’s intentions and its resistance to “Duterte’s efforts to dilute military ties with the U.S.” But this is only one side of the story. Another faction of the politically aware think the democratically elected President in pursuing a more neutral foreign policy has made the right choice for the country and its long suffering poor.
In sum, the Philippines political elite is sharply divided on Duterte’s foreign policy vis a vis China and the U.S. This has provided opportunity for both to become involved in Philippine domestic politics—directly or indirectly –supporting different factions. This dichotomy could lead to violent internal conflict. Moreover, the Philippines may be only one of many countries in Southeast Asia and eventually elsewhere like Africa where domestic politics become influenced and then inflamed by the US-China struggle.
This piece first appeared in the South China Morning Pos
*Mark J. Valencia, Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China