PHNOM PENH —
When Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced in China that “America has lost me,” he became the most recent leader within the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to align with Beijing.
Duterte went one better in his speech on October 20 in China, proposing that an alliance between Manila, Beijing and Moscow could follow now that he had announced his “separation from the United States.”
A long-time ally of the US, Duterte’s decision to swing Philippine foreign policy 180-degrees from Washington and into Beijing’s “ideological flow,” followed international criticism of his shoot-to-kill policy in a so-called war on drugs that has left thousands of low-level dealers and drug users dead in his homeland.
Duterte’s move toward Beijing marks the third Asean member, along with Cambodia and Laos, to hitch their foreign policies and their fortunes to the promises of an emerging China, particularly Chinese investment, condition-free aid and lots of low-interest loans.
Scholars interviewed by VOA Khmer said Manila’s cozying-up to China might provide “short-term benefits,” including the Philippines avoiding conflict with China over maritime claims in the South China Sea.
However, Manila’s realignment would have negative consequences for US influence in the Asean region diplomatically and economically, analysts said.
“If you can’t beat China, you should join China. I think [Duterte’s] also following the golden rule: whoever has the gold makes the rules,” said Ear Sophal, an associate professor at the Occidental College in Los Angeles, California.
Describing Duterte as “wily”, Sophal said the Philippines president appears to have followed the example of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has long vowed loyalty to Beijing and has often done China’s bidding within Asean on the South China Sea issue.
In return, Hun Sen has received billions in loans and investment from China, eclipsing more traditional aid donors such as Japan and Western countries who have sometimes sought promises of governance reforms in return for financing and development assistance.
“Duterte is definitely learning from the master himself, PM Hun Sen,” Sophal told VOA Khmer in an emailed response to questions.
During his visit to China in October, when he made his vow of support, Duterte also signed 13 bilateral agreements with Beijing, including trade agreements and financial assistance worth around $13.5 billion to the Philippines.
“It’s a natural move,” said Kung Phoak, president of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies (CISS).
“The economy of any Asian country depends on China’s trade and investment, as do the Philippines or Cambodia,” Phoak told VOA Khmer.
John Ciorciari, professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, said the Philippines’ realignment to China would be welcomed by Cambodia, which is now not the only openly pro-Beijing government in the Asean region.
“Duterte surely hopes for economic benefits from a closer relationship with China,” Ciorciari told VOA Khmer.
“For Cambodian leaders, a less assertive Philippine position on the South China Sea and a weaker US-Philippine alliance may be welcome in the short term, because it may lessen the tension with Asean over how to address China’s advances in the South China Sea,” Ciorciari wrote by email.
Longer term, however, “He [Duterte] is setting the country on a dangerous path,” Ciorciari said.
Cambodia is much further along its own path with China, particularly on the South China Sea dispute.
In 2012, an Asean foreign ministers’ summit in Phnom Penh failed to produce a joint statement for the first time in the association’s 45-year history after Cambodia blocked any critical mention of China regarding tension in the South China Sea dispute.
Cambodia showed its loyalty to Beijing once again when it blocked yet another joint statement at the annual Asean meeting in Laos in July.
The Asean communiqué in Laos had included in draft form a reference to the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration, which had recently ruled in favor of the Philippines and against China in the South China Sea dispute. The case was brought to The Hague court in 2013 by Manila following tension with China over contested areas around the Spratly and Paracel islands.
China rejected the court ruling outright. Cambodia had received $600 million in aid and loans from China just prior to the Asean summit.
During a visit to Cambodia last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping wrote off about $90 million in debts, and pledged another $230 million in loans to the Hun Sen government, including $15 million in military aid.
China has provided around $15 billion in aid and loans to Phnom Penh over the past 20 years. That figure does not include the 1970s and 1980s, when Beijing was the primary donor to the Khmer Rouge government in Phnom Penh and when it was an armed faction in exile on the Thai border.
China will not immediately trust that the Philippines has changed foreign policy camps, and it will want to more than words of support from Duterte, said Sophal of the Occidental College.
“I expect that the Philippines will be a recipient of more Chinese assistance. But these things take time. It’s not like China is going to suddenly give the Philippines billions,” he said.
“China’s relationship with Cambodia is very special. Decades in the making. Plus, remember the Khmer Rouge? Anyhow, China is not stupid.”
More immediately, the Philippines’ move gives China more influence in Asean.
“It obviously means Asean will be less interested in making statements against China,” Sophal said.
Despite Duterte’s much publicized comments on breaking away from Washington in favor of China, the US State Department maintained last week that it had not received any official separation letter from Manila.
Speaking at a news conference in Phnom Penh on October 27, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel said Washington respected Duterte’s decision, and the independence of the Philippines in matters of foreign policy.
Russel said the Philippines turning to China did not reflect the failure of President Barack Obama’s “rebalance to Asia” policy, adding that the rebalance could not be labeled with terms such as “success or failure.”
Ups and downs in bilateral relations are not a “verdict on the value of the American engagement,” Russel said.
Some believe that it is US engagement with Asean that might suffer the greatest following Duterte’s swing to Beijing, which seems likely to provide China more influence in Asean,
“The US security relationship with Philippines is a key pillar of the strategic architecture in Southeast Asia,” said Ciorciari, of the University of Michigan.
“If it cracks, wobbles or collapses, Asean states that see the US presence as helpful will have to adjust.”