February 2017

By Perry Diaz

American, German, and Japanese flags.

American, German, and Japanese flags.

One of the most quoted maxims in politics is: “There are no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.” But regardless of whether you’re dealing with a friend or an enemy, the one that could earn dividends is the mantra: “Don’t burn your bridges because you’ll never know when you would need them.” American presidents since the beginning of the 19th century were good at following this mantra. Not only did they not burn bridges, they built bridges for their former enemies. Yes, indeed. Look at post-World War II Germany and Japan.

At the end of World War II, the U.S. initiated the Marshall Plan – officially the European Recovery Program – to aid Western Europe from the ravages of war. More than $12 billion (approximately $120 billion in current dollar value) were given in the 1950s and 1960s. The reunification of West Germany and the former communist state of East Germany in 1990 created Europe’s biggest economic power. Today, the U.S. continues to maintain a strong military force to protect Germany and 25 other European countries – collectively the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) — from the threat of Russian aggression.

In the case of Japan, the American occupation of Japan provided a smooth transition to economic recovery. With the presence of American bases and troops, Japan allocated only one percent of her Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for her self-defense force; thus, giving her more to spend on economic recovery. By the 1960s, Japan became the world’s second largest economy after the U.S.

Today, Germany and Japan join the ranks of America’s most dependable allies. Germany, together with her World War II adversaries — United Kingdom and France — form the bulwark of NATO while Japan partners with the U.S. and South Korea in keeping China and North Korea at bay.

Rise of China

China-riseWith the rise of China as the world’s second largest economy after the U.S. – displacing Japan who moved down to third place — there is a great deal of anxiety among her Asian neighbors who are fearful of China’s imperialistic design in the South and East China Seas. Thus far, Vietnam and the Philippines have lost territories to China. In 1974, China grabbed the Paracel Islands after engaging Vietnam in a fierce naval battle. In 1994, China occupied the Mischief Reef, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and built permanent fortifications on it.

Scarborough-Shoal-aerial-view.2In 2012, China took possession of the Philippines’ Scarborough Shoal after four months of standoff between Chinese and Philippine coast guards. To break the impasse, the U.S. mediated for both parties to withdraw their vessels from the shoal. Both countries agreed. Well, the Philippines withdrew her ships but China didn’t. Since then, China cordoned the only opening to the shoal’s lagoon; thus, preventing Philippine ships and fishing vessels from entering what was once Philippine territory.

In 2013, China started building artificial islands on seven reefs in the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea (SCS). When the U.S. confronted China about those artificial islands, China said she had no intention of militarizing them. However, satellite photos show runways, harbors, and structures that appear to be missile emplacements. When asked again, China said that she has the right to build and install defense equipment on her sovereign territory.

Can China be trusted?

Reclaimed Fiery Cross Reef showing airfield, harbor, and buildings.

Reclaimed Fiery Cross Reef showing airfield, harbor, and buildings.

Chinese warplanes landed on Fiery Cross Reef.

Chinese warplanes landed on Fiery Cross Reef.

The representations that China made when she was building the artificial islands were different from what she’s saying now; she’s fortifying these islands to defend them from external forces. It manifests China’s propensity to lie. In other words, China can’t be trusted.

In a survey conducted by Social Weather Stations (SWS) in the Philippines last September, 76% of the respondents had “much trust” in the U.S. compared to 22% about China. What is interesting is that the survey was conducted at a time when Digong was vociferously expressing his anti-American tirades.

President Rodrigo Duterte giving the middle finger to the U.S.

President Rodrigo Duterte giving the middle finger to the U.S.

Duterte continued his verbal assaults on the U.S., particularly against then-President Barack Obama whom he called “son of a whore” and told him to “go to hell.” But Duterte seemed to be attracted to then President-elect Donald Trump who talked to him on the phone telling him that he was doing the “right thing” in his war on drugs.

As an expression of goodwill towards Trump, Duterte sent his Communications Secretary Martin Andanar and National Security Adviser Gen. Hermogenes Esperon to attend Trump’s inaugural last January 20. Although there were no news reports of the two attending the inaugural ball and having a seat at the VIP section at the inauguration, they were at the pre-inaugural reception at the Philippine Embassy, which was mostly attended by Filipino-Americans.

Change in Duterte

A changed Duterte?

A changed Duterte?

Something must have happened since then because Duterte seemed to have a change in his attitude towards Uncle Sam.

Recently, it was reported in the news that Duterte had given Defense Secretary Gen. Delfin Lorenzana the go-ahead for the U.S. military to build barracks and fuel depots in designated Philippine bases where American forces are allowed to temporarily station under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). This is a far cry from last month when Duterte threatened to terminate EDCA. He said then that he didn’t want his country to get entangled if a Sino-American war erupted. Lorenzana identified three bases where the U.S. is supposedly bringing weapons, including Palawan, which is just within 100-200 miles from the militarized artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago in the SCS.


CPP Chairman Jose Ma. Sison reacted to Duterte’s lifting of the ceasefire with the New People’s Army.

CPP Chairman Jose Ma. Sison reacted to Duterte’s lifting of the ceasefire with the New People’s Army.

Obviously, Duterte is realigning with the U.S., just a few months after he announced during his state visit to China that he will “separate” from the U.S. His 180-degree about-face surprised the Duterte watchers.

Last February 5, Duterte announced that he had terminated the peace talks with leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the National Democratic Front (NDF). He also lifted the “ceasefire” with the New People’s Army (NPA). In a media conference, Duterte said that the CPP-NDF-NPA triumvirate was making unreasonable demands including freeing hundreds of prisoners whom NPA claims to be “political prisoners.” Duterte had initially released 18 prisoners but their number was increased to 23 upon the insistence. After releasing them, the rebels demanded the release of another 400 prisoners. It was then that Duterte ordered the arrest of jailed leftist leaders who were allowed to join the peace talks.

Duterte then branded the CPP-NDF-NPA as a terrorist group, which didn’t dwell too well with Chinese President Xi Jinping. It’s a big blow to Xi whom the Chinese people affectionately call Uncle Xi or Xi Dada. Xi had expected Duterte to turn the Philippines into a vassal of China and terminate EDCA including the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). And with a navy without warships and an air force without warplanes, the Philippines would helplessly be at the mercy of a militant China. What a shame!

At the end of the day, the defensive umbrella that Uncle Sam provides over the Philippines would ensure that the country remains sovereign and independent. Unlike Xi Dada, Uncle Sam has no imperialistic design in the Philippines. However, America has vast national security interests in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region and thus has to remain a power in the region to keep the strategic shipping lanes in the SCS and other bodies of international water open to all nations.

Ultimately, it all comes down to a question of trust. Whom can Duterte trust: Uncle Sam or Xi Dada?


By Perry Diaz

Duterte-and-flag.3President Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte made a big splash in the international scene by declaring that he was pursuing an “independent” foreign policy. Then he declared his “separation” from the U.S.; threatened to terminate military treaties with the U.S. and proposed defense alliance with China and Russia. The world leaders did not bat an eye. But when his campaign against drug lords turned bloody – more than 3,000 drug pushers and users in less than 60 days – U.S. President Barack Obama indicated some concerns. Digong didn’t take it too well and called Obama “son of a whore.” Obama nonchalantly ignored him, saying: “I have seen some of those colorful statements in the past. Clearly he’s a colorful guy.”

Duterte-and-TrumpBut the newly inaugurated U.S. President Donald J. Trump took a different tact. He called Digong while he was still president-elect and they talked for several minutes. He praised Digong on his campaign against illegal drugs, saying he was doing it the “right way.”

There seems to be great expectations from a Trump presidency, which could give U.S.-Philippines relations some room for “reconciliation” particularly now that Obama has left office.

On the international scene, expect a great deal of geopolitical movements in an emerging multi-polar world order with the U.S., Russia, and China competing for dominance in world affairs.

Sino-American conflict

Trump-Xi-Putin.4While Trump seems comfortable with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he has irked Chinese President Xi Jinping when Trump questioned the “One-China” policy that has maintained U.S.-China relations on an even keel for the past four decades. Trump made it known that he is not committed to the “One-China” policy. “Everything is under negotiation, including One-China,” he said. Beijing angrily responded, saying that the “One-China” policy is “non-negotiable.”

Trump also accused China of currency manipulation and unfair trade practices. In addition, he questioned China’s reclamation of seven reefs in the South China Sea and building militarized artificial islands around them.

With the Senate expected to confirm Trump’s nomination of Rex “T-Rex” Tillerson as Secretary of State, the situation in the South China Sea could spiral into a war between the U.S. and China. During his Senate confirmation hearing, Tillerson likened China’s illegal occupation of several reefs in the Spratly archipelago to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He said that the White House needed to send China a “clear signal” that such activities had to stop. He also said that the U.S. would defend “international territories” in the strategic waterway and block China’s access to these islands.

Tillerson’s blunt warnings and proposed actions did not dwell too well with Beijing who told Washington to tread carefully “to avoid harming the peace and stability of the South China Sea.” Declaring that China has “irrefutable” sovereignty – China used the term “indisputable” before – over the disputed islands, China’s state-owned media warned that any attempt to prevent China from accessing her interests in the region would risk sparking a “large-scale war.” Interestingly, China had already deployed “significant” weapons systems, including anti-aircraft and anti-missile system, on these islands.

U.S.-Philippines alliance

James-Mad-Dog-MattisMeanwhile, the newly Senate-confirmed Secretary of Defense, Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis, will be going on a three-day visit to Japan and South Korea on February 1 to reassure them of Washington’s commitment to the security of the volatile Asia-Pacific. There are 28,500 American troops in South Korea and 50,000 in Japan.

But while Japan and South Korea welcomed the deployment of U.S. forces to their countries, the Philippines was wary of American presence in the Philippines, which has three defense agreements with the U.S., including a Mutual Defense Treaty. President Duterte whose hatred of the U.S. has led him to distance from the U.S. and got closer to China and Russia, wants to get rid of all foreign troops out of the country within two years and that he was willing to revoke base-hosting agreements with the U.S.

Last January 26, the Philippines’ Defense Secretary Gen. Delfin Lorenzana – concerned that the Philippines will be caught in the middle of a U.S.-China conflict in the south China Sea – said in a press briefing, “I’m waiting for my counterpart, Secretary Mattis. I’d like to talk to him to get his sense about these [security] policies because he will be the one to implement that.”

Then he said something that was never mentioned before: The Philippines should “maintain neutrality in its foreign policy.” Huh?

Neutrality and mutual defense

Duterte-and-Lorenzana-and-generalsLorenzana said, “We are very wary. Let’s see. We will think very hard if it will be implemented by the US, those pronouncements that they will prevent the Chinese from retaining these islands. We will react accordingly when the time comes, when they will start to do that… We might be caught in the middle.” Then he added, “In the first place, how can they [Chinese] prevent them [Americans] from going there? They [Americans] are already there…. We will have to discuss with the National Security Council if and when the Americans will really come to the South China Sea and implement those pronouncements.” There is not much that the Philippines could do to stop a U.S.-China conflict in the South China Sea. However, if war breaks out between the U.S. and China, the U.S. could invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and the Philippines would be expected to come to her aid. And this was what Lorenzana was trying to avoid when he mentioned a “neutral” foreign policy.

But in a press conference on January 27, Lorenzana said the U.S.-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which allows American troops to build facilities in Philippine military bases – is “still on.”

“According to the Pentagon, they will start constructing some facilities in the EDCA chosen camps… Basa Air Base, Bautista Air Base in Palawan… I think the first they will develop is Basa… with a runway and put up facilities also for their troops. Mga imbakan nila ng mga gamit nila kung nandito sila [It will be a storage for their equipment here],” Lorenzana said, adding the American troops could come back anytime should they decide to leave. He also said construction of facilities may start anytime as construction costs were already included in the U.S. fiscal year of 2017.

Lorenzana also reportedly said, “Aside from Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) and Philippines-U.S. Amphibious Landing Exercise (PHIBLEX), other military exercises with the U.S. troops will continue.”

Now, that’s a total turnaround in just a day – from pursuing a “neutral” foreign policy to total commitment to implementing EDCA and continuing with joint military exercises, particularly the Balikatan or shoulder-to-shoulder joint exercises.

Duterte-and-Abe-tastre-durianWhich makes one wonder: Did Trump call Digong secretly in the middle of the night reassuring him of Uncle Sam’s commitment to the security of the Philippines? Or was it just a “guni-guni” (imagination) during one of Digong’s sleepless nights? Or did Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe make good of his pledge of $6.88 billion aid package when they had breakfast at Digong’s private residence in Davao City? And didn’t Abe and Digong agree that the Philippines, Japan, and the United States would work cooperatively together? That’s a lot of questions but the answers are clearly manifested in recent geopolitical movements that translate favorably to the mutual benefit of the Philippines and America. Isn’t that what “mutual defense” is all about?

The bottom line is: “Neutrality” and “mutual defense” are mutually exclusive. They cannot be applied together; it’s either one or the other. If Digong wants to pursue a “neutral” foreign policy, he has to terminate all defense agreements with the U.S. and start buying warships, submarines, and fighter jets for the defense of the Philippines.