It hasn’t gotten much attention, but the embrace of China by the Philippines, and its renunciation of the United States, is the latest in the long, sorry series of major foreign policy setbacks we have suffered under President Obama. In a state visit to China, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte announced his country’s military and economic “separation” from the United States. He stated:
America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow. 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.
On his return to Manila, Duterte explained that by “separation,” he doesn’t mean cutting off diplomatic relations with the U.S. or reneging on treaty obligations. “The people of my country are not not ready to accept” going that far, he observed. “What I was really saying was separation of a foreign policy.”
Thus, according to a government statement, Duterte’s China speech was “an assertion that we are an independent and sovereign nation, now finding common ground with friendly neighbors with shared aspirations in the spirit of mutual respect, support and cooperation.” China, of course, is the main “friendly neighbor” with whom the Philippine government is “finding common ground.”
The Philippine tilt towards China fits the pattern of the Obama years. The revisionist powers — Russia, Iran, and China — are on the rise and their neighbors have noticed. They thus turn away from us and “find common ground” with the ascendant power[s].
This trend has intensified as Obama’s weakness and unwillingness to advance American interests become increasingly manifest. As Walter Russell Mead puts it:
[I]n the final days of Obama’s presidency, Russia, Iran, and China are all stepping up their game. Putin has been humiliating and outfoxing Obama at one end of Eurasia; Iran has gone from routing Obama at the bargaining table to enabling its proxies in Yemen to fire on American ships.
Xi now has a triumph of his own, with one of America’s oldest Asian allies [the Philippines] insulting Obama at official events. Clearly, America’s opponents (and some of our allies) have reached the conclusion that this particular American administration is unable or unwilling to respond forcefully to provocations.
Obama’s apologists in the mainstream media want to blame Duterte, a somewhat flighty leader with authoritarian tendencies, for the Philippines’ tilt towards China. They miss (or ignore) the point.
The world is full of flighty leaders with authoritarian tendencies (or worse). We can’t build our foreign policy around stable democrats alone. We must maintain strong relations with key allies like the Philippines even when they are led by unsavory characters.
I should also add that lack of trust and respect for the Obama-led U.S. isn’t confined to flakes and authoritarians. Israel is a stable democracy led by a rational (if not always pleasant) democrat. Under Obama, U.S. relations with Israel have deteriorated sharply, and Netanyahu is becoming increasingly cozy with Russia.
Let’s return to the authoritarians, though. Mead notes the difficulty of “balanc[ing] a commitment to human rights and the niceties of American liberal ideology with a strong policy in defense of basic American security interests.” Russia and China have an inherent advantage with rulers like Duterte, not to mention Assad, who want to trample on the rights of their citizens:
Death squads and extra-judicial executions on a large scale: the Americans will lecture you but China will still be your friend. Barrel bombing hospitals in Aleppo? The Russians won’t just back you; they will help you to do it.
How can we counter this advantage while maintaining our values? The way we have traditionally done it — by being more powerful than the Chinas and the Russias, and by showing a willingness to exercise our power in opposition to them.
Thus, our next president (Mead seems to assume, as I do, that it will be Hillary Clinton) has her work cut out for her:
[H]er first and biggest job will be to stop and then reverse the deterioration in America’s global position that her predecessor permitted. She will have to convince both friends and foes that the President of the United States is no longer a punching bag, and that the United States of America is back on the stage.
She will need, and she will deserve, the support of patriotic Americans in both political parties as she undertakes this necessary mission. President Obama’s mismanagement of foreign affairs is creating a genuine international emergency; the White House and Congress will have to work together to restore American prestige and stop the slide toward chaos and war.
I agree that Clinton will deserve bipartisan support if she undertakes the mission Mead describes. But unlike Mead, I doubt she will undertake it.