As Obama Tightens His Pivot to Asia, the Philippines Spring a Leak

As Obama Tightens His Pivot to Asia, the Philippines Spring a Leak
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President Obama's visits last week to Vietnam and Japan served as a reminder of the administration's oft-publicized "pivot" to Asia as well as a deepening of ties between the United States and the disparate network of states looking to balance against Chinese aggression in the region.

Although Obama was unable to deliver a ratified Trans Pacific Partnership to Vietnam, other items on the visit’s agenda--in particular, an end to the long-standing arms embargo by the U.S.--helped to further growing relations between the two states. But as Time’s Rishi Iyengar reports, Beijing was displeased by the developing ties:

“The Chinese leadership has long resented the U.S. presence in the South China Sea — a region it considers its sovereign territory despite claims by Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam — and has accused the Obama Administration of ‘militarizing’ the expansive water body and key international trade route.

That line of thinking was reinforced last week ahead of Obama’s visit, when Xu Bu, China’s ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) accused the U.S. of turning the South China Sea into a ‘disturbing regional hot spot’ in an op-ed for Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper.”

American balancing in the South China Sea is a delicate act; long-standing historical and economic tensions among states threatened by Chinese territorial claims often preclude formalized cooperation against the PRC. The U.S. is therefore especially dependent on cultivating individual, bilateral relationships with regional governments.

Comments made last Tuesday by the Philippines’ flamboyant President-elect Rodrigo Duterte are therefore reason for concern to American lawmakers. Reuters’ Neil Jerome Morales writes,

“Duterte said on Tuesday his country would not rely on long-term security ally the United States, signaling greater independence from Washington in dealing with China and the disputed South China Sea.

The Philippines has traditionally been one of Washington's staunchest supporters in its standoff with Beijing over the South China Sea, a vital trade route where China has built artificial islands, airstrips and other military facilities…

Asked by reporters if he would push for bilateral talks with China, Duterte replied: ‘We have this pact with the West, but I want everybody to know that we will be charting a course of our own.

‘It will not be dependent on America. And it will be a line that is not intended to please anybody but the Filipino interest.’”

Although Duterte has already made a name for himself as an freewheeling, wild talker, a Philippine drift outwards would be a major blow from the network of economic and defense integration that the Obama administration has pursued over the last eight years. It would be a particularly bitter pill to swallow in the Philippines, where President Obama just two years ago signed a ten-year defense pact and two months ago Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited to sign off on the construction of American facilities at five Philippine military bases.

The shift would also symbolize a major reversal in Philippine-American ties, which have for several years been characterized by warm relations between Obama and outgoing President Benigno Aquino. Alongside an unclear future for the TPP in Congress, it may leave the next president overseeing an only half-realized “pivot” to the region.

James Hitchcock is an assistant editor at RealClearPolitics. Follow him on Twitter @JamesHitchcock.

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