On Monday, Sept. 26, President Duterte disclosed that he had an hour-long talk with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev during the dinner of Asean leaders and their dialogue partners—the United States, Russia, and Japan on Sept. 7 in Laos.
Duterte sat to the right of Medvedev. To the President’s left was Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Previously, it was erroneously announced by the Palace Press Office that Duterte was to be seated between President Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in that dinner. Whether it was Duterte, or the US Secret Service, who changed the seating arrangement could not be determined. But that dinner arrangement could radically reset Philippine-American relations and possibly change the course of Philippine history.
“I am about to cross the Rubicon in my relations with the United States,” Duterte was supposed to have intimated to the Russian leader who studied law and comes from a family of academics. The latter was supposed to have retorted, ”come to Russia. We will help you.” The following day, Sept. 8, Duterte and Medvedev had a more formal one-on-one meeting, perhaps to put flesh and blood to a deal.
These days in Manila, Duterte has been announcing he would make epoch-making visits to China and Russia. The President wants to buy firearms from Russia and do trade deals with China in exchange for his keeping quiet on the South China Sea.
Rubicon was a small stream in northern Italy. It became one of ancient history’s most pivotal events, according to Google. From it sprang the Roman Empire and the genesis of modern European culture. In 49 BC, Julius Caesar snatched a trumpet from one of his troops and ran to the river with it, shouting “advance”, and declaring, ‘Let us go where the omens of the Gods and the crimes of our enemies summon us! The die is now cast!” Caesar reached his point of no return.
Has Duterte reached the point of no return in Manila’s relations with Washington?
Philippine-US security arrangement is anchored on three basic agreements—the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951 which enables each country to come to the defense of the other, “subject to constitutional processes”; the Visiting Forces Agreement of 1999 which allows port visits by US forces and joint military exercises; and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement which allows up to five bases for use by Americans in the Philippines.
Duterte doesn’t seem to believe the US will help Manila in a war with China over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) since the country’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone in the South China is not strictly part of the “Metropolitan Territory” of the Philippines as defined by the 1954 MDT but an economic territory—meaning the ocean doesn’t belong to the Philippines but the country has exclusive rights to its fishes, minerals, and other resources above and below. The US is only after asserting its right to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and is in no mood to fight China.
Starting next year, there won’t be any more joint Filipino-American military exercises under the VFA. American soldiers, numbering more than 100, will have to pull out from Mindanao.
As to EDCA, it is not clear whether Duterte will allow US soldiers inside Philippine military camps, five of them, and act like the masters of the locals.
The effect is that the Philippines will truly become an independent state, not what Duterte derisively calls “a vassal” of the US. Since visits by US ships, which normally are nuclear-powered and carry nuclear weapons (otherwise, what are their warships for?) will be discouraged, it will help Asean achieve its goal of nuclear-free zone and the region being a zone of peace, freedom and neutrality. This should warm the cockles of the hearts of the other Asean leaders smarting from decades of colonialism.
Thus, neutralizing the impact of the MDT, VFA and EDCA is really like crossing the Rubicon for Duterte, at least during his six-year presidency.
Now, will the Americans deliver a comeuppance one of these days? Yes, of course. They propped up Corazon Aquino and prepared her for a takeover from the increasingly nationalistic Ferdinand Marcos who was ousted by People Power. When she was about to be deposed by a violent coup, the Americans sent “persuasion flights” in 1987 to deter the military rebels.
Joseph Estrada was also ousted by People Power in 2001. He refused the US demand that he stop his all-out war against the Muslim rebels in Mindanao. Had Estrada won that war (he did, actually), peace would have come to Mindanao and the Americans would have no excuses to stay in the Philippines’ second largest—and most troubled—island.
Duterte has taken a different tack. He has negotiated peace with the Muslim rebels and is offering them Federalism. The Muslims are biting. Now, both the communist New People’s Army and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front both hate the Americans. They want the gringos out. The President is listening to their demands and thus has acted belligerently, against the Americans.
Duterte also wants to align the other Asean leaders to his position. Quietly, in their hearts, they like what the Filipino leader has been saying and doing, including perhaps his expletives. He has made state visits to Laos, Indonesia and Vietnam, countries with deep reservoir of resentment against American imperialism. The US dropped millions of bombs in Laos. Americans helped overthrow both Sukarno and Suharto, among the most revered of Indonesian leaders. The Americans fought in Vietnam for 20 years but was roundly defeated. The defeat left a deep scar in their psyche. It was America’s first major military reversal overseas.
An Asean flank against America, if it happens, could put in jeopardy two things—Washington’s Pivot to Asia (where 60 percent of US forces are deployed), and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.
Now, has Duterte reached his point of no return in his personal and official relations with the US? The answer is an effing yes.