What a difference an election can make. Since his swearing in as Philippine President this past June, succeeding Washington puppet Benigno Aquino III, the outspoken, plain-talking Rodrigo Duterte has moved his strategically pivotal Asian country away from the US geopolitical orbit. Now President Duterte is on an Asian tour that has taken him to China and then Japan. Soon he has indicated plans to meet Russia’s Putin too. He appears set to blow a huge hole in the Pentagon Asia Pivot aimed at encircling China militarily. And the Philippines shift is setting off tectonic shifts across the Asia space from Vietnam to Myanmar and beyond.
Hints of the shift appeared to begin just after his inauguration on his very popular promise to clean up the nation’s large and growing narcotics problem. When reports of bounty hunters shooting drug dealers on sight without trial appeared, the US Ambassador, Philip Goldberg and Obama Administration criticized Duterte, who clearly rejected the criticism, chilling relations. Duterte retorted that Goldberg was “a gay son-of-a-bitch,” and that Obama was “son of a whore.” Leaving aside the question of the veracity of Duterte’s remarks, he definitely introduced a new tone into international diplomacy and signaled he was not intending, like his oligarchic predecessor Aquino, to be Washington’s lap dog. You can be sure his open defiance did not go unnoticed across the developing world.
However the clear signal of the tectonic shift in alliance policy for the former US occupied republic came during President Duterte’s recent visit to Beijing. There he was received by China President Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square on October 20.
And in Beijing, to the apparent surprise of the Obama Administration, Duterte announced to the Chinese and to the world that he was proclaiming a “separation” from the United States. Rather than come to Beijing with confrontation over the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague on July 12 rejecting any and all claims of China to various islands or even rocks inside what is known as the “Nine Dash Line” between China’s coast and The Philippines, Duterte spent four days in China talking business deals and peaceful coexistence.
During a later meeting of Philippine and Chinese business leaders in Beijing, Duterte elaborated. “I announce my separation from the United States, both in military but economics also. America has lost it” Speaking to his Chinese hosts, Duterte continued: “I realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia.” Culturally, he is also close to China. His maternal grandfather was a Chinese immigrant from Xiamen, Fujian. Welcome to Asia.
Crossing the Rubicon
Duterte’s statements were not off the cuff as Western media and the White House tried to portray. A month before his Beijing visit, in a private talk with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev during the September ASEAN Summit, Duterte reportedly told the Russian that he was about to go past a point of no return in terms of the Philippines’ relationship with the United States, revealing that he had sought help from Russia about the move: “I’m about to cross the Rubicon between me and the United States. At least for the next six years I would need your help,” he said to Russia’s Prime Minister.
While the White House and Western media tried to portray the remarks of the unusually outspoken new Philippine leader as posturing to get the best deal for the country, the background and ensuing developments suggest, on the contrary, that the talks with Beijing are part of a deeper Philippine geopolitical strategy.
Days before departing for Beijing Duterte told Philippine press regarding the dispute with China over the South China Sea, “War is not an option. So what is the other side? Peaceful talks.” He added a note of sly pragmatism with more than a little truth, stating, “It’s China that has money, not America.”
By the end of the week, Duterte’s Philippines business and government delegation had signed deals worth a reported $13.5 billion. Duterte also stated that he would like to bring his country into the vast One Belt, One Road infrastructure project of Xi’s China. President Xi referred to China and the Philippines as Xi called the two countries “neighbors across the sea with no reason for hostility or confrontation.”
Little reported in Western media was the fact that on October 25, one day after Duterte returned to Manila, Chinese military ships quietly left disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced the departure, adding, “If the Chinese ships have left then it means our fishermen can resume fishing in the area.”
The Chinese move dramatically defuses a confrontation that Washington had hoped to unleash through their manipulation of a de facto illegal Hague tribunal, all as part of the Pentagon Asia Pivot military encirclement of China through its Asian neighbors. Washington neo-cons must be chewing their neckties in rage at the brilliant Chinese-Philippine moves.
Ramos’ quiet diplomacy
More interesting still is the man who behind the scenes prepared the Xi-Duterte meeting. In one of his first acts as President this past July, Duterte announced that he had named former Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos as his Special Envoy to China. At the time, tensions between the two countries over the Hague tribunal ruling were very high. Ramos was on record proposing that Duterte set aside the recently announced award in the South China Sea arbitration and resume bilateral talks with Beijing.
Ramos, the man who played a key role in deposing dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1980’s, together with Washington, is one of the senior statesmen of Asia. A decorated military hero who graduated from the West Point Military Academy and was even briefly on the international advisory board of the nefarious G.H.W. Bush-linked Washington Carlyle Group, the 88-year-old Ramos in recent years has worked to improve ties between Beijing and Manila.
As President from 1992 to 1998, Ramos worked successfully to improve Philippine relations with China in all areas. Ramos was chairman of the Council of Advisors to the high level China Boao Forum on Asia when Duterte named him as his China Special Envoy three months before Duterte’s successful Beijing visit.
In his subsequent visit to meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a bellicose US ally who has been increasingly aggressive towards China, rather than repudiate his pro-China remarks as some in the West and even his own Foreign Minister clearly hoped for, Duterte announced that he wanted all foreign (read US) troops out of the Philippines within two years. His predecessor, pro-Washington Benigno Acquino had invited the US forces back in, allowing them to use Clark Air Base again after the Philippines Congress in 1991 refused to renew the lease of the US Air Force.
Tectonic effects beginning
What can only be called the defiance of the new Philippine President towards the once-feared American Superpower, has already begun to set off a tectonic geopolitical shift in the Asia region.
The next Asian nation to sho signs of tectonic geopoliticl shift is Vietnam. Vietnam until recently appeared in the grip of Washington’s anti-China campaign, as part of the US Asia Pivot.
Prof. Zhang Baohui, Professor of Political Science at the Hong Kong Lingnan University notes that “the US needs a narrative that paints China as an aggressor. More importantly, the narrative needs a ‘victim’ of China’s revisionism to highlight the needs for regional countries to boost their defense and seek closer ties with the United States.”
“Duterte’s ‘pivot to China’ fundamentally undermines that narrative.” Zhang Baohui adds that, “If the Philippines and China could resolve their tension through a cooperative win-win formula, others in the same position, countries such as Vietnam, also may be motivated to forsake the balancing strategy and opt for accommodation with China.”
Indeed, Vietnam, also an historic ally of Russia from the Cold War era, has already begun to move closer to Beijing. On August 30, Vietnam’s Defense Minister, General Ngô Xuân Lịch, paid a highly unusual visit to the mausoleum of Mao Zedong in Beijing and laid wreaths there. He stated that Vietnamese people never forget the “selfless” contributions that China rendered to their country’s war of independence. Then, on September 12, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing, stated that his country sees Sino-Vietnamese relations as the top priority of Vietnam’s foreign policy.
Add to this the recent fact that Thailand, until recently in the grip of a US -backed Thaksin Shinawatra oligarchy, has moved, since the military took over in May, 2014 as the National Council for Peace and Order, towards increasing ties economically and militarily with China.
As Bangkok-based geopolitical analyst Tony Cartalucci recently noted in the NEO journal, Thailand, Washington’s longstanding ally, has recently “incrementally dismantled American influence over it.” Thailand’s trade now is focused primarily on Asia with the majority of its imports and exports “divided equally between China, Japan, and ASEAN” nations. Perhaps more significantly, “What used to be a military dominated by American hardware and military exercises, is transforming with the acquisition of Chinese tanks, European warplanes, Middle Eastern assault rifles, Russian helicopters, and Thai-made armored vehicles — as well as joint drills held with a variety of nations, including for the first time, China.”
As Duterte expressed it in his recent Asian tour, diplomacy is better than war to resolve disputes. And besides, it’s much more fun to build up nations and entire continents as China is doing through its vast One Belt, One Road than it is to make war and to destroy which is Washington’s bankrupt alternative these days. Everywhere we look in today’s world, wars and rape of nations is becoming boring for more and more of the world. People want to grow, to build a safe, prosperous future and live in peace. Washington, only a few years ago the Sole Superpower, is today, as the title of my newest book puts it, “The Lost Hegemon.”
F. William Engdahl is strategic risk consultant and lecturer, he holds a degree in politics from Princeton University and is a best-selling author on oil and geopolitics, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”