Whilst the world has been watching Washington, something incredibly interesting happened in Manilla. Weeks after President Duterte of Philippines cancelled a US arms deal and went to Beijing, opening up a new chapter in Chinese-Philippine relations and just months after calling Barack Obama a ‘son of a whore’, Duterte has praised Donald Trump.
Yesterday, President Duterte, called the United States a ‘friend’ and ‘ally’ and affirmed his commitment to all bilateral agreements between the two countries. He went on to say, “The respect should be there, and in all matters that would affect our two countries, especially the treaties that we signed with them, and there are so many agreements, it will be honoured, all of these thing”.
In the same statement, the usually brash Duterte described himself as a ‘tiny molecule’ in relation to Trump, before making other positive comparisons between the two leaders. He went so far as to compare his penchant for swearing with that of Trump.
The praise heaped on Trump contrasts sharply with his thoughts on Obama whom Duterte said can ‘go to hell’. But behind a personal affection for Trump and a willingness to re-cooperate with former colonial master and neo-colonial ally America on key issues, what will this mean for the region?
Early in Obama’s presidency, there was talk of a ‘pivot to Asia’. This was meant to mean that US foreign policy would be shifted away from Europe in order to focus on building relations, strengthening alliances and dominating East Asia, rather continuing to act as Europe’s post-Marshall plan godfather.
That worked out about as well as Stevie Wonder’s attempted to become a fighter pilot and Angela Merkel’s plan to be a Chanel catwalk model. Obama’s Presidency ends with American troops all over Europe, ready to receive orders at any moment to go to war against an ‘imminent Russian invasion’, the go to phrase amongst many Eastern European politicians when they seek to divert their citizens’ attention from a faltering economy and growing gap between working hours and wages.
Whilst American troops sit in Europe waiting for Godot, much of East Asia has moved away from America. Whether it be Russia considering re-opening bases in Vietnam, Japan’s increased diplomatic engagement with Russia or most importantly the apparent shift of the Philippines move away from the US towards China, Obama’s pivot to Asia didn’t happen, instead Asia pivoted away from America.
The implications of Duterte’s move towards China immediately eased tensions in the long disputed South China Sea. But does Duterte’s pivot back to America mean that he’s pivoting away from China?
There are several scenarios. The worst case scenario for regional stability would see Duterte’s ‘reset’ with America reigniting conflict with China over the South China Sea as well as causing domestic instability amongst a population that have recently rioted over the continued American presence in their former colony.
The most awkward scenario would be for Duterte to not follow through on his warm words to Trump, thus ending more than 100 years of a US-Philippine relationship on a confused note that could only see Duterte’s credibility suffer in the eyes of both China and America.
The best case scenario for all sides involved would be for Manilla to continue to cooperate with Beijing and indeed continue to open trade avenues with China whilst changing the nature of the long relationship with the US. Insofar as this is possible, it will be dependent on Trump bringing his business acumen to fore in respect of geo-political negotiations in Asia.
If Trump is able to let go of the arrogant colonial policies of this country’s past and treat the Philippines as a potential competitive market for goods, rather than a country to be financially, militarily and politically dominated by America, this could only be a good thing. It would mean that Trump and Duterte could sit around the table as equals rather than master and man, this in spite of Duterte’s characterisation of Trump as superior to him, at least in a personal capacity.
Were this latter scenario to transpire, The Philippines could possibly act as a kind of go-between/joint negotiator in Trump’s desired plan to renegotiate America’s trade relationship with China. In any case, it is well to remember that when criticising American trade deals with China, Trump never attacked Chinese leadership. On the contrary he called them intelligent and referred to those in Washington as stupid. I personally cannot disagree with this characterisation.
If Trump were able to engage in a respectful post-colonial relationship with Manilla whilst negotiating the China as an equal, it could only be a good thing for global stability and for Trump’s reputation.
It remains to be seen what will happen, but it’s difficult to remember the change of tenancy to the White House, so suddenly shifting geo-political opinion of America so rapidly. From Moscow to Damascus and now in Manilla, it looks like President Trump has potential allies waiting for him in countries that had the worst of relations with the Obama administration. Looks like America is open for business.