Pivot to Asia; Duterte declares end of Philippines-U.S. war games

Reuters: “I am serving notice now to the Americans, this will be the last military exercise,” Duterte said during a visit to Vietnam. “Jointly, Philippines-U.S.: the last one.”

The significance cannot be overstated. While Reuters interprets this event as “fissures”, it is far more significant. It is a rupture.

The only mitigation of the bad news is that Duterte’s persona has not at this point completely infused and displaced the previous ethos of the Philippines’ government since the Marcos dictatorships: liberal, friendly, inefficient, tolerant, and corrupt. But given Duterte’s ability to actuate an extrajudicial war on drugs, the displacement may happen. Liberal Philippine politics seems in a pushover situation.

This is also the big issue of U.S. presidential election: the tradition of liberal democracy challenged by authoritarian promises of prosperity that would presumably result from greater order, at the cost of constitutional sacrifices dimly appreciated by large swathes of the electorate. Memories are short. The political pendulum oscillates with a period on the order of a generation.

The oscillation occurs spontaneously. It does not have to have a cause. But the timing is probably influenced by a rising China, the preeminent example of economic and social success under an authoritarian, elitist regime. The Philippines, in its short existence, has always been a poor country, struggling with a self-inflicted stigma of cultural dependency. This is why the U.S. Naval Base at Subic Bay was closed in 1992, though the closure was certainly catalyzed by some high profile crimes of American servicemen.

Duterte’s statements, predating his election, suggest his specific thinking. He wants Chinese money. He wants a railroad. He is unwilling to sacrifice  potential prosperity, even as a Chinese vassal state, for the abstraction of geopolitics.

So the future trajectory of U.S. / Philippines relations is stunningly derivable from open sources by appropriate consideration of Duterte’s history, demeanor, and personality. Duterte is a pragmatist in the extreme. He has no interest in the formal structures of either domestic government or foreign relations. He is more like a U.S. big city mayor from the early-to-mid twentieth century. Richard J. Daley comes to mind, though it remains to be seen whether Duterte’s course will follow the dictum, “Power corrupts…” Every once in a while, we find an honest  (personally) man.  But like a Daley, he already has a machine that can steamroller the institutions of Philippines government.

Arguably, Duterte’s apparent willingness to make the Phillippines a vassal state, and his authoritarian fix for social problems, could result in greater prosperity and happiness for the majority of Filipinos. The political history of the country suggests that Duterte’s tenure could be lifelong.

This severely weakens  U.S. military posture in the region. There is no alternative but to draw the line further out.

When order is missing, it is craved. When order displaces freedom, freedom is craved. So goes the pendulum.

 

 

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