By Zhao Minghao Source: Global Times Published: 2016-10-20
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will wrap up his four-day visit in China Friday. This is his first foreign trip outside the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) after assuming office. It thus marks a thaw in the Sino-Philippine relationship. In fact, the bold moves by Duterte can be an inspiration for other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, showing they all can find a better way of getting along with a rising China, rather than relying on Washington to confront Beijing.
After US President Barack Obama took office in 2009, he announced a plan to reallocate US strategic resources from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region. Washington has suffered heavy losses due to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. American strategists believe that the fight against terrorist groups has made the US overlook more threatening emerging powers, which are strong challengers to the US status as maintaining a global hegemony. Undoubtedly, Beijing was singled out as the biggest challenger to Washington given China`s economic might, military potential and its different political system.
Joseph S. Nye Jr. once said that compared with the US, China suffers prominent geopolitical disadvantages. Worsening ties with neighboring countries will restrict Beijing`s rise. This makes sense from the perspective of strategy. The South China Sea issue turned into a flashpoint in the Asia-Pacific region in 2010. Then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton publicly backed the Philippine government led by Benigno Aquino III in its fierce confrontation against Beijing.
China has tried more than once to ease the bilateral relationship with the Philippines. Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomed and communicated with Aquino during the 2014 APEC Summit in Beijing. Nevertheless, Manila refused to take a step back. High-level officials from the Philippines even declared many times that they are not afraid of a war against China. Under such circumstances, it is impossible for Beijing to not act. China started construction on its own islands and reefs and deployed some defensive weapons.
Using the South China Sea disputes as an excuse, the US military, which was driven out by Filipinos in 1990, "logically" returned to the Philippines. The two countries also started frequent large-scale joint military exercises. Furthermore, Washington has also sold missiles, warplanes and submarines to Asia-Pacific nations including the Philippines.
Rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region is one of the most important political legacies of Obama`s administration. However, it also has very notable shortcomings. First, whether the US admits it or not, the obvious military actions make China feel that it is contained by the US. As Robert Ross, a professor from Boston University, pointed out, deploying so many military forces around China has increased the sense of insecurity in Beijing.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership is the economic pillar of the rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific strategy. However, the TPP will have difficulty being approved by the US Congress during Obama`s term. The TPP will drive Asia-Pacific countries to different trade camps. As Joseph Stiglitz, a renowned US economist put it, TPP may turn out to be the worst trade agreement in decades.
The rebalancing also poses challenges for the US in managing its relations with its allies. Japan and the Philippines are both the US allies, but they have their own policy agenda. In many circumstances, Washington has to put its ties with China on the line to maintain its credibility among its allies.
As Duterte emphasized, the Philippines hopes to maintain good relations both with the US and China, especially when the former needs economic support from China. According to disclosures by WikiLeaks, Hillary Clinton`s speech at Goldman Sachs showed that she also realized that Asia-Pacific countries do not want to pick sides between China and the US.
Although Duterte is often rude to US officials, Washington should recognize the potential benefits of Manila`s choice to conduct independent diplomacy.
This can significantly reduce the risk of the rebalancing and prevent the US from being entrapped in unnecessary military conflicts in the Asia-Pacific region.
The author is a visiting fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.