Uncharted Waters: Salvaging A Crumbling Alliance
On April 30, U.S. President Donald Trump had a “very friendly” phone conversation with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and invited him to visit the White House. News outlets and commentators were quick to question Trump’s support for Duterte, a leader accused of war crimes, and it’s quite obvious why.
Experts estimate that over 7,000 people have been killed by police and vigilantes in Duterte’s war on drugs, most of them extrajudicially. The climate of fear has reached a fever pitch in the Philippines, prompting churches to step in and shelter people on “kill lists.”
Despicable as Duterte’s drug war may be, the suggestion that an American president should not meet with a foreign leader because of questionable domestic policies is not only asinine but also hypocritical. American exceptionalism and realpolitik don’t mesh well, and if the U.S. were to use political morality as a prerequisite for meeting with the president, the U.S. would be diplomatically isolated. China, for example, has an appalling human rights record, with a guilty-until-proven-innocent legal approach, fleets of “death vans” for more efficient executions, religious persecution, censorship, and involuntary organ harvesting. And yet Trump met Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago just last month. For world leaders, the sad truth is that geopolitics often trumps human rights abuses.
However, this is not to say that the problem is not being dealt with. The International Criminal Court (ICC), whose has the job of prosecuting war crimes and crimes against humanity, is already on the case. They have received a 77-page official complaint from a Philippine lawyer, and have vowed to take appropriate action. Agnes Callamard, a U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Killings, is also gathering information on the situation in the Philippines. The president’s job is not to make moral judgments on foreign leaders; rather, it is to promote American interests abroad.
According to a recent survey conducted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Studies Center, many scholars and government officials noted a clear U.S. withdrawal from the region. More than half of respondents described the U.S. as an unreliable ally, and almost three-quarters said that China is now the dominant player in the region. From a realist perspective, this withdrawal is a critical threat to America’s global hegemony. Not only does it send a message to allies that the U.S. might not support them, it also loosens the leash on China and paves the way for a multipolar system.
With regards to the South China Sea in particular, China has been pursuing its ends using a carrot-and-stick strategy. The carrot takes the form of economic aid and promises of inclusion in the One Belt One Road (OBOR) trade network, while the stick is the looming threat of military conflict. As the U.S. withdraws from the region, this strategy appears to be working as many Southeast Asian nations start to quiet down about their South China Sea claims. In July 2016, The Hague ruled in the Philippines’ favor with regards to an island dispute with China, but this landmark ruling has not been brought up in negotiations ever since. In April, Duterte walked back calls to militarize islands in the South China Sea, saying, “What do you want me to do? Declare war on China? I can but we’ll lose all of our military and policemen tomorrow, and we are a destroyed nation. And we cannot assert even a single sentence of any provision that we signed.” In response, China recently offered the Philippines a $500 million grant to expand its defense capabilities.
At a recent ASEAN conference hosted in Manila, this submission to China was very evident. The body is working to create a code of conduct for the South China Sea, but the statements drafted were watered down and mentioned nothing about land reclamation or militarization. “[Duterte] has defined the outcome already. Some are very frustrated over the turn of events,” a diplomat told media after the conference. Indian news outlets mused that ASEAN had allowed the South China Sea to become a “Chinese lake.”
The Southeast Asian realignment is essentially the region switching their bets. The U.S. is withdrawing support from the region, so many countries are now siding with China. America needs to reaffirm its commitment to the region and stand up to China. This is why Trump’s call to Duterte was a good first step, and also why Duterte’s non-committal to visit the White House is a bad sign. However, to avoid portraying the U.S. as a narcissistic country in desperate need of affirmation and external validation, it might be better to wait until the other side agrees to the visit before announcing it publicly next time.
Photo credit: “huahin 1 120” by Sompop S for Flickr with a CC BY 2.0 license. No changes were made to the original image. Use of this image is not endorsement from its creator.