President Duterte gets a bit closer to China.

Photographer: Wu Hong-Pool/Getty Images

The Philippines Just Blew Up Obama's Asia Pivot

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
Read More.
a | A

Does anyone remember President Barack Obama's pivot to Asia? The plan was to focus diplomatic and military assets in East Asia to contain a rising China. It was one of the reasons Obama said he was shrinking the American footprint in the Middle East.

Well, the pivot is failing. On Thursday, the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, announced to an audience at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing a "separation" with the U.S. "America has lost now,” he said. "And maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way."

Two things should be said here.

First: Duterte is a crude vulgarian. He has called Obama a "son of a whore," and picked a fight with the pope. As a politician he is often compared to Donald Trump. As a president, he has acted like an authoritarian, waging a paramilitary war against his nation's drug users and drug dealers.

Second: Duterte's own government appears to have been kept out of the loop about this new alliance. On Friday, Duterte himself said he did not mean to imply that he would cut diplomatic ties with the U.S., but he has not backed away from his pledge to end military cooperation with the U.S., though others in his government have suggested he will back down. 

Regardless, this is a big story. The Philippines has been an important U.S. ally since the beginning of the cold war. What's more, the Obama administration has invested in the country as part of its pivot to Asia. In 2014 the two countries signed an enhanced defense cooperation agreement. When the Philippines brought a case against China at the Hague over China's artificial islands in its territorial waters, the U.S. supported the Philippines diplomatically.

In July, the Hague's Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of the Philippines. This would have been an opportunity for the U.S. to turn the screws on China. But instead the Obama White House encouraged China and the Philippines to resolve the matter themselves after the ruling of the international tribunal.

At the end of August, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that the U.S. was not interested in "fanning the flames of conflict but rather trying to encourage the parties to resolve their disputes and claims through the legal process and through diplomacy."

Duterte has now taken Kerry's advice. After announcing his country's new alignment with China, Duterte signed a series of trade agreements worth $13.5 billion, along with a promise to continue bilateral negotiations over the South China Sea.

Dan Blumenthal, the director of Asia studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told me Friday that the Obama administration had fumbled. "After the tribunal decision, our response was to tell Duterte to tamp down tensions and talk bilaterally with China, and there was no evidence of follow-up by us in terms of our own military exercises or diplomatic initiatives to enforce the findings of the tribunal," he said. "There has been next to nothing on this. We still haven't had a Freedom of Navigation mission that actually challenges the Chinese artificial islands."

Is it any wonder then that Duterte concluded Obama wasn't serious about defending the rule of law in the South China Sea? Close watchers of the Filipino leader could have predicted this kind of thing. Before his campaign for the presidency in August 2015, he told supporters, "If America cared it would have sent aircraft carriers and missile frigates the moment China started reclaiming land in contested territory."

Of course America didn't do that. It didn't even send the Navy into Filipino territorial waters claimed by China in the South China Sea after an international tribunal ruled that those waters were Filipino. Instead, the Obama administration acted as if international law would implement itself. But it never works that way. The rule-based system Obama endorses requires a great power to defend it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net