Against the background of badmouthing the U.S., Duterte’s comment may have real meaning. It was accompanied by expressions of sympathy regarding Korea and China.
Previously, Duterte’s anti-Americanism seemed so set in his bones, he vowed to go it alone, even in the face of regional threats. The official version is provided by The Diplomat:
…First, in an apparent reference to president’s speech in China, is the “seperat[ion] [of Philippine] foreign policy from the U.S.” Sta. Romana was quick to point out that it “does not mean that we totally cut off from the U.S.” Rather, it means lessening Manila’s dependence on Washington while maintaining the “historic alliance with the U.S.” Second, an independent foreign policy requires “improvement of relations with China.” Finally, Sta. Romana emphasized “the improvement of relations with non-traditional partners,” including Russia, Japan, and India.
But given Duterte’s actual tenor towards the U.S., the above is not accurate. In one month of continuous rage against the U.S. he ripped the country out of the U.S. orbit with a vengeance. Perhaps he was inspired by the Nonaligned Movement, many members of which consistently sided with the Soviets.
Now the waters of the Pacific are cold. Duterte is challenged by the twin challenges of ISIS and China. But he seems to be an incomplete authoritarian, blaming himself for the troubles of ISIS. If he is an authoritarian, he has a flip side, which he has just shown to Rex Tillerson.
Perhaps Duterte is simply being appreciative. But his dalliance with the Nonaligned may be over, and he may want to be a U.S. ally again. Geography makes the Philippines the crucial missing player in the western Pacific. But there is a problem.
In five years time, the military challenge of China will greater. At some point, the handicap of U.S. projection of power over long distances will become critical. An innovative, disseminated basing scheme is probably needed to provide survivable forward basing. The history of the closed base at Subic Bay suggests that local occasional friction, including occasional crimes by U.S. service personnel, would be inevitable. It was a major affront to dignity, significant to the closure.
In various posts, I’ve suggested that the U.S. is overextended in the China Sea. Much of this has to do with the absence of the Philippines. Projection of power all the way to the western Pacific is is currently within U.S. capability. But it has a time horizon. Five, ten, or twenty years hence, we may discover that China has played a waiting game.
We may not be able to negate the time horizon, but we can push it out, with secure and extensive basing arrangements in the Philippines and elsewhere. This is a hard sell. But the alternative is to ignore the contraction of a sphere of effectiveness as time passes.
The current U.S. approach to the nations in the western Pacific is a treaty without the paperwork. It fosters the illusion that Uncle Sam will come to the rescue, when nothing of the sort is possible. China just kicked Vietnam off the offshore drilling Block 136/3, west of the Spratlys, a location far from what we thought was China, and close to Vietnam. How is a port call to Vietnam by a U.S. aircraft carrier going to change that?
Bases evoke colonial memories. An argument to which Duterte might be sympathetic would stress not unbeatable U.S. strength, but U.S. limitations. Putting U.S. servicemen in harms way on Philippine lands should compensate for inevitable frictions.
This may not be enough. Power projection without economic rationale is the eventual negative fate of all empires. A way to couple the two might actually be essential. But no voluntary client state has ever agreed to align its trade for that purpose.