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Philippine president declares separation from the US
02:27 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Curtis S. Chin is a former U.S. Ambassador to the Manila-based Asian Development Bank. He is a managing director with advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. You can follow him on Twitter @CurtisSChin. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

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Curtis Chin: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has made clear his contempt for current state of US-Philippines ties

The US-Philippines relationship, while still strong, is clearly in flux, Chin says

CNN  — 

The unintended consequences of an outgoing US presidential administration being perceived as “more bark than bite” are now playing out in Asia.

Recently elected Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has upended the US rebalance, or “pivot,” to Asia, making a pivot of his own toward China. And while the disputed islands of the South China Sea might feel like a million miles away from Syria, a dotted-line – if not direct connection – exists between what is happening in these two troubled places. That connection must be kept in mind by future policymakers if the United States is to be seen more consistently as a credible partner across the Asia-Pacific region.

Curtis Chin

Just months into his six-year term, the Philippines’ new President has made clear his contempt for the current state of US-Philippines relations at a time when Chinese investment and influence has been growing across the region. This is happening against the backdrop of increasing concern among America’s allies in the region over US political commitment to trade and economic engagement. After all, both leading US presidential candidates have come out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership – a 12-nation trade deal that if enacted would cover some 40% of world trade, and which was once described as the economic centerpiece of the US pivot to Asia.

Duterte’s rebalancing of his nation’s policies toward China acknowledges this reality.

The outspoken one-time mayor has called for an end to joint military exercises with the United States, and has also stated that he wanted all foreign troops out of the Philippines, possibly within two years. This despite a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the Philippines, and the tremendous popularity of Americans among Filipinos.

Duterte’s about-turn on relations with the United States follows the Philippine victory at an international tribunal ruling against China over disputed territories in the South China Sea, known locally as the West Philippines Sea.

What does all this have to do with the Syrian conflict taking place some 5,000 miles away?

Duterte’s actions should be viewed in the context of two key events from 2012 that arguably are key to a perception that the US pivot to Asia has failed the Philippines.

In August 2012, President Barack Obama was asked at a press conference if he envisioned using the US military in Syria, and his reply was clear. In a now infamous “red line” warning, Obama said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime should neither use nor move chemical or biological weapons, lest the action provoke a US military response.

That red line, however, was crossed when around 1,500 people were killed in Syria in a subsequent chemical weapons attack, widely believed to be linked to Assad’s regime. Yet what followed did little for US policy credibility.

After initial, aborted attempts to win congressional approval for military intervention in Syria, the Obama administration blinked. The United States instead brokered a deal with Russia that had Assad agreeing to destroy most of his regime’s chemical weapons. That face-saving deal also kept Assad firmly in power.

This followed an earlier 2012 deal mediated by the Obama administration in the South China Sea, with similar consequences to perceptions of US reliability. There, following a showdown between Chinese and Philippines ships over fishing rights in April 2012 at an area known as the Scarborough Shoal, the United States mediated a deal that required both China and the Philippines to remove their maritime forces (although China has since denied such a deal took place).

The Scarborough Shoal encompasses a group of tiny islands, atolls and reefs just 130 miles off the Philippines’ main island of Luzon, and well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. But while the Philippines left, China did not. And while the United States moved on, perhaps pleased that its “strategic ambiguity” had meant it didn’t have to take a side, the move likely cemented concerns among some Filipinos about its ally’s commitment.

Certainly it seems to have had an effect on Duterte, who even as mayor of Davao city had expressed anti-American sentiments. These no doubt stemmed in part from the American colonial legacy in his nation, as well as suspicions over possible US connections to an explosion at a hotel in his city.

Regardless, fast forward to today and Duterte seems to be relishing the progress in relations with China, after having made it his first trip outside Southeast Asia, even ahead of Japan, which is the leading source of foreign investment into the Philippines.

On Friday, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced that Chinese vessels had left the Scarborough Shoal, allowing for the return of Philippines fishermen.

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    Another official, national security adviser Hermogenes Esperon, reportedly noted: “The coast guard of China is there, but their navy is gone. And now, our fishermen are no longer being accosted, no longer being forced out, so we can say things are now friendly.”

    Of course, it’s early days in the Duterte pivot to China. And there is much hope among Filipinos that under their new Philippines leader, a break from past orthodoxy will yield better economic results for their nation without “separating” from the United States.

    Yet the US-Philippines relationship, while still strong, is clearly in flux. That should underscore an important lesson for whoever sits in the Oval Office next – Asia’s leaders will be watching. And while words matter, actions do, too.