This year the United States formally named China as a threat in its new National Security Strategy. Far from being unexpected or novel, this merely confirms decades of US strategic thinking dating back to the Cold War and in a broader sense, dating back to Imperial Britain’s antagonism of China which the US adopted in the mid-20th century and continues to pursue in the 21st with ever more vigour, as it becomes undeniably clear that China will soon be the world’s largest economy.
Months later, US intelligence agencies named President Rodrigo Duterte of The Philippines as a “threat to democracy” which by any logical definition means, ‘a threat to US neo-imperial hegemony’. In reality, both of these US derived epithets are related. Duterte is currently the ASEAN leader most associated with pivoting his country away from a historically domineering US relationship and towards a more multipolar outlook which necessarily embraces countries like China, as well as Russia and fellow ASEAN members with whom Manila had had previous disputes, including Malaysia.
Within this context, the various disputes between ASEAN members and China in the South China Sea, has become America’s de-facto justification for its continued meddling in ASEAN and its continued antagonism of China by purposefully violating China’s territorial rights in the region, in spite of the US having no direct claims anywhere near the South China Sea.
By contrast, the Philippines which borders the South China Sea, has adopted a strategy to turn a dispute into a win-win situation and this is all due to the diplomatic and economic strategy of President Duterte. During Duterte’s first meeting with his Chinese counterpart President Xi Jinping, the latter hailed a “golden era” of relations between countries that were on the opposite sides of the regrettable Cold War. Today, Manila, under Duterte’s leadership looks to work with China to exploit economic opportunities in the South China Sea.
Duterte has stated,
“Now their (Beijing’s) offer is joint exploration, which is like co-ownership. It’s like the two of us would be the owners. I think that’s better than fighting”.
While negotiations for economic exploration activities in the Sea continue, China has welcomed Duterte’s firm commitment to renounce violence and hostility over the matter. It has always been China’s position regarding all colonial holdover territorial disputes, whether with ASEAN nations or neighbouring India, that while China is not willing to surrender its position, it is nevertheless open to and indeed encourages dialogue in working towards a win-win solution that is to the economic and diplomatic satisfaction of all parties.
Duterte has not only taken China up on this offer but he is actively promoting it as a way to enrich the material standing of his country while furthermore, opening the doors to Chinese investment that will help The Philippines break out of the regressive economic relationship with the US – a relationship that has not helped to transform the lives of ordinary Filipinos in any meaningful way.
The US has already responded to Duterte’s South China Sea strategy in the form of frequent but unjustified criticisms of Duterte’s ‘drug war’, while also pivoting its anti-Chinese strategy in South East Asia from a Manila centric policy to a Hanoi centric one. In spite of this, the fact that China has recently overtaken the US as Vietnam’s number one export destination while remaining its largest overall economic partner, looks to challenge the US status quo even in a country like Vietnam with long standing enmity towards China, in spite of the desire of Beijing to engage in a rapprochement with Hanoi.
For The Philippines, Duterte has provided a new model for solving remaining disputes in the South China Sea that could and should be applied across the board in ASEAN countries with coasts along the Sea. It is a straightforward win-win model that prioritises economic progress over hostile confrontation, the likes of which would only lead to economic and even military defeats for any ASEAN nation that actually sought to militarily engage China.
While the US wants to provoke China and do all it can to retard the progress of its One Belt–One Road trading routes, the US would never realistically go to war with China on behalf of any ASEAN member. President Duterte is aware of this reality, although Duterte’s South China Sea strategy goes beyond this.
Duterte understands that the future of Asia lies in economic connectivity with China and beyond. He has found a way to both build long term trust with Beijing while also helping to fulfil his promise to improve the lives of ordinary Filipinos by creating national wealth through much needed joint ventures with China.
Duterte has left other ASEAN leaders behind in this sense, as he has shown a willingness to do what is right at times when others retain a fanatical devotion to conflicts which benefit no one except for the US military industrial complex.