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Is the Philippines beset by regional military games?

Denis Bright invites discussion of the implications of the return of a substantial US military presence in the Philippines under the 2014 President Obama’s Defense Enhancement Cooperation Agreement. Is this US strategic initiative replacing the pivotal role of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in regional foreign policies? What are the implications for Australia?

Confusion over maritime boundaries in the South China Sea has definitely brought the return of Cold War Strategic Diplomacy to Australia’s near north. Foreign minister Julie Bishop appropriately invites caution in the management of this issue to balance strategic concerns with Australia’s close economic ties with China:

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop: I believe that we are able to balance those competing interests as other countries do in many other circumstances. We are an economy that’s built on foreign direct investment so we’re able to manage these issues as well as a relationship and alliance with the United States. (Four Corners Online 3 October 2016) (

A strategic deal between Manila and Washington was stitched up long before the recent Filipino national elections on 9 May 2016. Five major US Filipino bases have been reactivated.

Conventional opinion prior to the national presidential elections favoured the return of a Liberal Administration under the leadership of Manuel Roxas as President Benigno Aquino’s administration had reached its constitutional time limit. This would have represented a steady continuation of outgoing President’s Aquino’s commitment to market based economics and closer strategic ties with the US.

These arrangements allowed the Pentagon to deploy conventional forces to the Philippines for the first time in decades.

US hosted the first special US-ASEAN Leaders’ Summit at the Sunnylands resort in Rancho Mirage, California on 15-16 February 2016. It sought a greater accord with the ten ASEAN Countries on issues relating to security, trade and climate change. This represented a shift away from a drift towards non-alignment in international affairs in many ASEAN countries.

The US also strongly supported the case of the Philippines for a ruling on its maritime borders with China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

The election of far-right populist President Duterte has brought an element of unpredictability into strategic relations in South East Asia:

Duterte has this month struck at the heart of ties with the United States by saying the two countries would not hold any joint naval patrols during his six-year tenure and calling for the withdrawal of U.S. special forces stationed in the restive south of the country. On Friday, he outraged Jewish groups by appearing to compare himself to Adolf Hitler, which could heap more pressure on Washington to publicly turn against him.

He has insulted Obama and then made it clear the Philippines will pursue a much more independent foreign policy than it has in the past.

That has included the Philippines extending an olive branch to China, despite the two countries being locked for years in a bitter territorial dispute in the South China Sea. Duterte has also spoken of reaching out to Russia.

“Ever since President Duterte took office, China and Philippines have been engaging in friendly interactions, which have yielded a series of positive results,” Zhao Jianhua, the Chinese ambassador to Manila, said at a Chinese National Day reception at the embassy this week.

“The clouds are fading away. The sun is rising over the horizon, and will shine beautifully on the new chapter of bilateral relations,” Zhao said.

Duterte plans to visit Beijing from Oct 19-21, and hold talks with both President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.

Diplomatic and business sources in Manila have said he will be accompanied by about two dozen businessmen, which could lead to deals being forged that could underpin any improved bilateral ties.

Aside from concerns about the capacity of the International Court of Arbitration to resolve such complex issues, there is the possibility that President Duterte will open bilateral negotiations with China on this issue during his forthcoming visit to Beijing from 19-21 October 2016. Offers of developmental assistance from China to the Philippines could derail the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the US.

The election of President Duterte had little to do with maritime boundaries in the South China Sea.

Successive Filipino Governments have strongly endorsed IMF prescriptions for the management of an innovative market economy to the letter. Filipino economic statistics look good from a distance. The Philippines has been transformed into a largely urbanized and potentially successful consumer society with good prospects for continued economic growth in 2016-17:


Significant sections of the Filipino population of 105 million are not benefitting in real terms from the trickle-down effects of economic growth. The income divide is profound. It is comparable to the US itself as well as most countries in Central and South America. In some regional areas of the Philippines, poverty levels engulf half of the population with accompanying problems like infant mortality and childhood malnutrition.

In the heartland of support for President Duterte in Mindinao, poverty co-exists with the effects of a prolonged armed separatist campaign by the Moro Liberation Front. A temporary truce is currently in place.

While President Duterte received widespread support in Mindinao and other socially at risk areas, his support base was quite strong in sections of Metro Manila and in adjacent communities transformed by urbanization.

This urban area near Metro Manila has a total population comparable to Australia.

The plethora of shopping malls and street markets confronts the limited purchasing power of lower income workers in factories, telephone call centres and other service industries.

Strategic US Build-up in the Philippines

Strategic US Build-up in the Philippines

As the date of President Duterte’s planned visit to Beijing approaches, Chinese leaders can be expected to offer some concessions on maritime boundaries, new investment and developmental assistance to the Philippines. China’s initiatives can result in an easing in regional strategic tensions associated with the currently risky air and naval patrols just a short distance from US military bases in the Philippines.

After the US Presidential Elections, it is definitely in China’s economic and strategic interests to support The ASEAN Way as a model for the reduction of international tensions across the Indo-Pacific Region.

Fortunately Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is not All the Way with the USA on this issue. She deserves bipartisan support on this issue. Success in this theatre of strategic tensions could pave the way for other diplomatic initiatives in East Asia in this Post-Abbott Era.

It is more difficult for Australian leaders to acknowledge that exporting the market model of economic development through the IMF is a source of great long-term instability in entire the Indo-Pacific Region. The unexpected election of President Duterte in the Philippines is one case study in the consequences in the currently heightened state of regional strategic tensions.

denis-bright Denis Bright (pictured) is a registered teacher and a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis has recent postgraduate qualifications in journalism, public policy and international relations. He is interested in developing pragmatic public policies based on commitment to a social market that is highly compatible with currently fluid trends in contemporary globalization.


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  1. stephentardrew

    Enjoyed. Likes are disabled.

  2. paulwalter

    No doubt about it. Like Haiti or Uganda, the Philippines is the hidden true face of Globalisation, the inverse of the Western Dream.

  3. Paul

    Thanks Denis for the article. An interesting shift in approach by the new Philippines Government – I can see how better relations with China could better assist the Country in the long term. It’s a real balancing act and I support Julie Bishop’s approach. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds. I certainly don’t support many of Duterte’s policies or approach particularly with respect to human rights.

  4. Leila smith

    Good article Denis & a timely reminder about the issues in the Philipines & their impact in the region & beyond

  5. Catherine

    Australia should not be ‘All the Way with the USA” – that attitude only leads us down a path to conflicts that are not in our best interest to be involved in .

  6. Tessa

    Hopefully Penny Wong as our future foreign minster understands that our ANZUS agreement is not a blank cheque to export the American way!

  7. Pat

    Democracy in the Philippines should be a ticket out of poverty and not a job assisting with War Games: what do War Games achieve for people living in poverty who enjure poor industrial standards and squalid living conditions.

  8. Alternatives Needed

    The pure market approach to economic management simply does not work in middle-sized economies like the Philippines where people need more support from government and living wages to survive in a high growth economy. The Liberal Aquino Government thought that the people would rally to sabre rattling against China to keep them happy but the old scare mondering didn’t work. US military bases also have a bad image in the Philippines as service personnel on deployment act out in a pretty insulting manner to Filipinos and Filipinas. Try visiting Angeles City and you won’t be impressed by the wall to wall bars and worse.

  9. ASEAN Way First and Foremost

    Tessa is right. Asian countries want their own road to development. People remember that every country outside China has been affected by a major financial crisis since the 1980s from South Korea to Indonesia. Local currencies collapsed and the US dollar became the safe-haven for wealthy people. For others, local currencies became virtually worthless until reconstruction occurred under new rules that favoured the USA. Definitely a case of trying to expoprt the American Way.

  10. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    Thanks Denis,

    for raising awareness about the shifts in power between the Philippines and other countries in the region.

  11. New Left Alternatives

    Denis: A hard-hitting critique of mainstream politics in the Philippines as defined by the outgoing Aquino Liberal Government and cheered on by the IMF by Christine Lagarde (former Sarkozy Minister for Finance 2007-11). What Sarkozy did for France can now be imposed on the global economy if such issues are not reported to warn of terrible consequences for countries, rich and poor alike.

  12. vaughann722

    Thanks Denis ; Rodrigo Duterte is a real worry ; apparently a mass murderer according to reports ; Enforcing the dictates of the IMF doesn’t help ; If they come to an understanding with China, though, they might get a better deal on investment and development. (see: Chinese investment in Africa compared with US investment) The worst prospect in the region is a possible war with China. At the same time as tensions skyrocket in Europe and the Middle East. That needs to be headed off before ‘everyone loses’. The US is hardly spotless here if you look at the record of interventions during the Cold War.

  13. Bob Briton

    Interesting piece, thanks Denis. The rest of the media seems hell bent on simply portraying Duterte as crazy. Next he’ll be a Hitler who has to be stopped. Regime change on the cards?

  14. Maria

    Great article Denis. Hopefully, the strengthened relationship between China and Phillipines will be beneficial for both countries.

  15. Kyaw Wai Yan Min

    That’s great article Denis..carry on. The best view of relationship between China and Philippines..

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