Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte Wreck US Influence in Asia

Decision to terminate VFA ultimately plays into Chinese hands and weakens Manila

The United States’ regional “pivot to Asia” is now probably dead at the hands of Presidents Donald Trump in Washington and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. That could also mean the end of the 70-year military and diplomatic dominance of the US in Asia, to Manila’s detriment. 

Trump’s chaotic approach to diplomacy had already weakened a rebalancing strategy that was on the ropes over lack of funding and commitment. Duterte most recently created international headlines on February 11 when Malacañang Palace announced the nullification of the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement between the two countries, which provides a legal and operational framework for the presence of US troops on Philippine soil, in a fit of pique over the US State Department’s cancellation of a visa for the crude gunsel Ronald dela Rosa, now a member of the Philippine Senate. 

Dela Rosa was formerly the national police chief who directed the first phase of Duterte’s murderous drug war, which has taken the lives of thousands of mainly poor drug users and, according to conjecture, a considerable number of enemies of the police. Duterte later banned all of his cabinet members from visiting the US. 

There is a 180-day cooling off period before termination of the VFA. But, according to a range of sources, Duterte appears unlikely to back down, especially after Trump told reporters in Washington that “if they would like to do that, that's fine, we'll save a lot of money. You know my views are different from other people. I view it as, ‘Thank you very much, we’ll save a lot of money." 

The president went on to insult the Philippine armed forces by saying it was US forces that obliterated ISIL terrorists in the 2017 battle for the city of Marawi in Mindanao which took the lives of nearly 1,000 militants and destroyed the city. That was a lie that probably irritated Duterte even more. The US had virtually nothing to do with the battle. More than 200 Filipino soldiers also died in the months-long attempt to oust the terrorists.

The nullification of the VFA, if indeed it does take place, is likely to be followed by revocation of the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement and the Mutual Defense Treaty, which allow the US to station troops and other personnel as well as aircraft and vessels on Philippine soil. Philippine Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on February 12 told reporters that termination of the agreement would make the EDCA “practically useless” and the Mutual Defense Treaty a “hollow agreement.” Dozens of other arrangements remain to be unwound.

Duterte’s action has been met with astonishment and opposition from his own defense secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, a large proportion of the Philippine congress, members of his cabinet and many people within his administration. It would end joint military exercise with the US and leave the Philippines pretty much at the mercy of Chinese expansionism in waters both to the east on a resource-rich area known as Bentham Rise, and to the west on islands on which China has already staked a claim under its so-called “nine-dash line,” largely with Duterte’s acquiescence.  

Duterte, since he was elected, has largely capitulated to the Chinese on a wide range of issues, ignoring a historic ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in favor of the Philippines over possession of islets within the Philippine exclusive economic zone. Those actions are is in contradiction to the wishes of his people. The latest poll by the respected Social Weather Stations says 87 percent of adults want the government to assert its right to the islets. 

Some 89 percent want China’s infrastructure removed along with its military presence and 84 percent say the government should form alliances with other countries in opposition to China. Vietnam, joined by Malaysia and separately Indonesia in recent weeks have adopted strong postures against China’s occupation of the entire South China Sea, which has been ignored by Duterte. Nonetheless, Duterte remains extraordinarily popular over all. 

As Duterte has pivoted to China, the US’s own notorious pivot has faltered. Former President Barack Obama’s plan to rebalance to Asia weakened when Republicans in the Congress refused to allow increases in resources during what was called the budget sequestration of 2013. Ambitious plans never were followed up much beyond committing a rotating battalion of US Marines to headquarter in Darwin, Australia, and basing two littoral combat ships in Singapore. Herbert J. Carlisle, the commander of Pacific Air Forces, acknowledged that resources were never committed because of other US commitments. 

When President Trump arrived in office in 2016, he refused briefings by the State Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to several books published recently, completely underestimating China and believing the US was still strong enough to crush Beijing economically and militarily. China’s leader Xi Jinping has moved faster and more adroitly than Trump could ever have figured out. 

As Elliott A. Cohen, the former state department counselor to Secretary Condoleezza Rice wrote in the January/February 2019 issue of Foreign Affairs: “The president has proved himself to be what many critics have long accused him of being: belligerent, bullying, impatient, irresponsible, intellectually lazy, short-tempered, and self-obsessed.” 

The most ambitious effort at US continued dominance in Asia was in the Transpacific Partnership, a 13-nation free trade pact created by the administration of George W Bush and followed up by Obama to basically freeze China out of the Pacific trading system. President Trump, almost as soon as he came into office, voided the agreement. His diplomacy onward was chaotic. The remaining 12 nations have restarted the free trade agreement without the United States, putting the US at a disadvantage, for instance to Australian agriculture sales to Japan. US cattlemen have been frozen out.

In addition, the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations created the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP – joined by six other nations, particularly China – and ignored the United States, which remains locked in a trade war begun by Trump against China, and which has resulted in other disadvantages to the US despite a propaganda attempt by the president make it look like a victory.  

In the meantime, Trump has bumbled through the region, vainly attempting personal diplomacy that has done far more harm than good. In response to Duterte’s bellicosity over the dela Rosa visa, he described what he called his "very good relationship" with the Philippine president and said "we'll see what happens." Duterte responded that Trump was trying to prevent the abrogation of the VFA. He has described a similar “good relationship with Xi Jinping, while Xi continues to ignore him and conduct a belligerent foreign policy.

The president’s romance with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has come to nothing and given Kim additional time to develop his nuclear weapons program. His attacks on South Korea over demands for more compensation to keep US troops there have resulted in Seoul turning to China for a proposed defense pact. Similar demands have been made of Japan despite attempts by Japan’s Prime Minister to curry favor. 

A weakened State Department and depleted ambassadorial staffs have allowed disagreements between Japan and South Korea to fester to the point where regional cooperation has been damaged. The president has antagonized allies at a time when China has pushed regional economic development through the trillion-dollar Belt and Road initiative to realign the region’s infrastructure toward China, an effort that has faltered.

What all this means is China’s possession of the South China Sea is basically de facto despite the continuing efforts of the US Seventh Fleet to make the US presence felt. Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia – which individually has had more success -- may continue diplomatic efforts to thwart China. But the People’s Liberation Army Navy and the Chinese Coast Guard, thanks to incompetence, inattention and diplomatic bumbling, own most of the sea and the odds of ousting them from much of the area are slim indeed.