US ‘pivot’ to Asia hits the rocks

By Jude Woodward

The US foreign policy establishment is reeling after its strategy to reassert itself in Asia and contain the rise of China received a hammering from an unexpected quarter – its long-term ally, former colony and reliable stooge, the Philippines.

Roderigo Duterte, having replaced former president and US acolyte, Benigno Aquino, in July this year, immediately began distancing the Philippines from the US. This culminated in an announcement during an October visit to China that the Philippines’ foreign policy orientation was ‘separating’ from the US and that in future the country would seek to be more aligned with China.

Since 2010, the US has relied extensively on the Philippines to carry out its ‘pivot’ to Asia: a reorientation in US foreign policy aimed at countering the rise of China and securing a new period of American leadership in Asia. With the other Southeast Asian countries proving less than enthusiastic to drive forward a US policy that would damage their relations with China, the US had to depend on the Philippines to spearhead US policy in the region.

A key tactic in the US’s intervention in Southeast Asia has been to whip up tensions around the long-standing, conflicting claims to islands and shoals in the South China Sea, using these disputes to label China a ‘regional aggressor’ and persuade the other countries bordering the Sea to invite the US to act as ‘mediator’ and step up its naval presence aimed at China.

The sovereignty disputes are of long-standing, and had provoked occasional blow ups in the past, but since the 1990s had been largely managed in a multilateral framework led by ASEAN with the engagement of China. China’s approach to how to deal with the disputes had been set out by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, when he said to then president Corazon Aquino: ‘we can set aside this issue [of sovereignty] for the time being and take the approach of pursuing joint development’; and not let ‘this issue stand in the way of China’s friendship with the Philippines and with other countries’. In other words, as on other similar disputes – for example with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands – China has pursued a policy of restraint, maintaining its territorial claims, but not seeking to force the issue to a conclusion, while seeking compromise on how to deal with issues like fishing rights, seabed exploration and coastguard and naval activities. In this context ASEAN was able to set a multilateral framework for how the disputants should deal with conflicts that inevitably arose, with the result that any major clash had been avoided for nearly twenty years. While all the countries neighbouring the Sea – including China – had objected to various steps others had taken at different times, the conflicting sovereignty claims had not become the overriding matter in their mutual relations. As Fu Ying, chair of the Foreign Affairs committee of the People’s Congress put it: ‘The disputes… spilled from those islands and reefs… but without spinning out of control.’

Hence when, in 2010, the US suggested the conflicting claims in the Sea required US intervention, this was not particularly welcomed. The other parties to the dispute did not see any particular new threat emerging from China’s behaviour, which remained much as it had for the previous 20 years. China was not aggressively expanding its claims in the Sea; like the other parties to the dispute it had secured its claim to specific rocks and reefs by building some facilities and other features, and maintained coastguard patrols, but this had been going on for years.

None were therefore prepared to risk their rather calm and economically productive relations with China in order to shore up a fading US Asian hegemony by whipping up a confrontation over these conflicting claims. Only the Philippines, under president Benigno Aquino enthusiastically signed up to the new US policy.

Apart from during a brief period in the 1990s, the Philippines had always been the US’s most reliable and subordinate ally in the region, and its economy was also far more dependent on trade and investment relations with the US. It had been the slowest growing of the Southeast Asian economies in the period that saw the ‘Asian miracle’ economic growth in countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia through the late 1980s and 1990s. Following the 1997 Asian financial crisis most of the other ASEAN countries strongly reoriented towards regional trade and investment relations, particularly with China, and also with the growing economies of the Mekong peninsula, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

Against this the Philippines’ closer integration with the US market continued, as did its slower growth. Undoubtedly Aquino hoped that the vocal support from the Philippines for US policy in the region would result in a boost to US trade and investment, particularly as the country struggled with the impact of the 2008 world financial crisis.

The Philippines’ key contribution to the US’s new policy in Asia was to provoke a confrontation with China over the disputed Scarborough Shoal. In 2012 it broke the prevailing calm by sending the Filipino Navy to drive Chinese fishing boats out of the area, where both had regularly fished for decades. When China responded in kind – by blocking Filipino fishing boats from the Shoal – Aquino accused China of behaving like ‘Hitler over the Sudetenland’ and, with US backing, referred the disputed oceanic claims between China and the Philippines to the international arbitration court in The Hague.

This was exactly the type of response that the US had been angling for in its ‘pivot’ to China. A crucial aspect of the US policy – which simultaneously played out in a similar 2012 stand-off provoked by Japan with China over the disputed islands in the East China Sea – was to use these long-standing sovereignty disputes over various rocks and islands to create confrontations with China that could give credence to US claims that China was pursuing a new expansionist and aggressive regional policy that necessitated a stepped up diplomatic and military engagement of the US to keep under control.

The problem was that despite the 2012 escalation of conflicts over the Scarborough Shoal with the Philippines and over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands with Japan, neighbouring countries were not convinced of a growing threat from China – not least because they knew exactly how and why these confrontations had come about. Thus despite all its efforts, the US failed to get ASEAN or any of its individual members to openly condemn China’s role in the South China Sea, while South Korea and Taiwan took a distance from Japan’s activities in relation to the Diaoyu. Only Vietnam, at various points, looked like getting hooked by the US tactics in the region, stepping up military collaboration with the US and occasionally echoing some of the stronger rhetoric emanating from the Philippines against China. But even Vietnam backed off from significantly risking its relations with China through itself becoming a protagonist to the Philippines’ case against China in The Hague.

Nonetheless, the narrative of plucky little Philippines against the Chinese communist behemoth had some cut-through in the West. This allowed the US to internationally justify a stepped up naval presence in the South China Sea and provocative actions toward Chinese positions in the disputed Spratly Islands. A number of US ships sailed within 12 nautical miles of Chinese installations in both the Spratlys and Paracels; US air sorties for close reconnaissance increased from about 260 in 2009 to over 1,200 in 2014; US warships and planes began making frequent so-called ‘innocent passage’ transits through China’s territorial waters and airspace. US Pacific commander Harry Harris said that the US intended to send warships to close quarters with China in the South China Sea about eight times a year.

In July this year the US strategy was crowned by a ruling from the UN arbitration court that China’s claims and activities in the South China Sea were not lawful, finding comprehensively in favour of the Philippines. The US declared China an international ‘outlaw’, and began discussions with Japan, Australia and the UK on joint naval patrols through the South China Sea to defend ‘freedom of navigation’ and international law.

But from the very moment of this tactical triumph, the underlying weakness of the US’s position in the region began to become painfully clear. Apart from Japan and the Philippines, no other country in the region did much more than ‘note’ the Hague ruling; ASEAN could not agree a position. The Vientiane 11th East Asian Summit ignored the ruling and strongly averred that security issues in the Sea should be dealt with by negotiations, reasserting the role of multilateral regional initiatives to manage the disputes that include rather than confront China.

The message to the US was clear: the escalation of tensions in the region since 2012 had not been welcome, and continuing attempts to use the ruling to militarise relations in the region would not be supported. There was an evident shared desire to return as rapidly as possible to the status quo ante 2012, when a combination of China’s policy of restraint in seeking any final settlement on the disputes and ASEAN’s role in setting a compromise framework for how they were handled had kept conflicts muted and manageable.

However it was the US’s former colony and chief agent in the region, the Philippines, that delivered the US a decisive blow. Announcing the Philippines would no longer deliver the bullets of US policy against China, Duterte first scuppered a proposed meeting with Obama over the summer by insulting the character of his mother, then announced that the Philippines intended to end joint military exercises with the US, finally using a visit to China in October to declare that the US-Philippines special relationship was officially over.

The visit to China and these declarations bore immediate fruit for Duterte. As well as delivering $24bn in Chinese investment deals, a couple of weeks after the visit, without any fanfare or announcement, China once more allowed Filipino fishing boats access to the Scarborough Shoal. Thus after four years of bluster by the US, the situation before the manufactured confrontation in 2012 was restored quite simply, with both Chinese and Filipino boats fishing in and around the Shoal without hindrance from either side. Ultimate sovereignty is once more shelved, with both China and Philippines formally reiterating their continuing opposed claims.

The blow of the Philippines’ announcement was closely followed by similar steps by prime minister Najib of Malaysia, who in late October signed a defence deal with China, reaffirmed that their disputes in the South China Sea would continue to be dealt with bilaterally and indicated a further general tilt towards China and away from the US in Malaysian foreign policy. Unlike the Philippines, throughout the previous five years of rising tensions, Malaysia had tried to steer a middle course, but these Autumn 2016 decisions indicated a significant new bias toward China.

While the primary driver for stabilising relations with China is economic, both countries have also strongly objected to US’s interventions into their domestic affairs. While Duterte’s violent ‘war on drugs’ has clearly involved extrajudicial killings and major issues of human rights, his popular mandate is currently unchallenged and he has pointedly rejected the interventions of the US on the issue as attempts to reassert its past colonial prerogatives. In Malaysia the US accuses Najib of direct involvement in a massive fraud scandal, which has also been rejected as unacceptable US interference. While there are undoubtedly issues for which both Duterte and Najib should be held to account, neither country accepts the right of the US to interfere in its old imperious way on such domestic issues. As Najib put it, it is not for ‘the former colonial powers… to lecture countries that they once exploited on how to conduct their own internal affairs today’.

It is precisely this ability for countries to stand up to US demands on how they run their internal affairs or conduct their foreign policy that the US has sought to pre-empt by its ‘pivot’ to Asia. The option of economic collaboration with a rising China, coupled with the growing value of its military protection, means they can reject the kind of interference from the US that they just had to put up with in the past. This is what the US wants to cut off in its drive against China.

Instead this is all adding up to a looming defeat for the US in Asia and its hopes of preserving its place as the dominant power in the Pacific. Rather than a militarised standoff in the South China Sea between the smaller, weaker countries of the periphery and the mighty China, in which the US could present itself as sailing to the rescue, proposals like joint US-Japan-Australia naval patrols in the South China Sea look like nothing more than provocation.

When Duterte was in Beijing, he declared that ‘the US has lost’, culturally, economically and militarily. This is exaggerated: the US has a great deal of residual strength and once the US presidential election is out of the way, whoever wins, it will find new ploys and means to turn events in its direction. But there is no doubt that the US position in Asia has desperately weakened and its overweening project of ‘America’s Pacific century’ increasingly looks a pipedream.

This article was first published here on the New Cold War blog.