The Philippines just blew up Obama's Asia pivot

Does anyone remember US President Barack Obama's pivot to Asia? The plan was to focus diplomatic and military assets in East Asia to contain a rising China. It was one of the reasons Mr Obama said he was shrinking the American footprint in the Middle East.

Well, the pivot is failing. Last Thursday, the President of the Philippines, Mr Rodrigo Duterte, announced to an audience at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing a "separation" with the United States. "America has lost now," he said. "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."

Two things should be said here. First: Mr Duterte is a crude vulgarian. He has called Mr Obama a "son of a whore" and picked a fight with the Pope. As a politician he is often compared to Mr Donald Trump. As a President, he has acted like an authoritarian, waging a paramilitary war against his nation's drug users and drug dealers.

Second, Mr Duterte's own government appears to have been kept out of the loop about this new alliance. On Friday, Mr Duterte himself said he did not mean to imply that he would cut diplomatic ties with the US, but he has not backed away from his pledge to end military cooperation with the US, though others in his government have suggested he will back down. Regardless, this is a big story.

The Philippines has been an important US ally since the beginning of the Cold War. What's more, the Obama administration has invested in the country as part of its pivot to Asia. In 2014, the two countries signed an Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement. When the Philippines brought a case against China at The Hague over China's artificial islands in its territorial waters, the US supported the Philippines diplomatically.

In July, the Hague-based arbitral tribunal ruled in favour of the Philippines. This would have been an opportunity for the US to turn the screws on China. But instead, the Obama White House encouraged China and the Philippines to resolve the matter themselves after the ruling.

At the end of August, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that the US was not interested in "fanning the flames of conflict but rather trying to encourage the parties to resolve their disputes and claims through the legal process and through diplomacy". Mr Duterte has now taken Mr Kerry's advice. After announcing his country's new alignment with China, he signed a series of trade agreements, along with a promise to continue bilateral negotiations over the South China Sea.

Mr Dan Blumenthal, the director of Asia studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told me on Friday that the Obama administration had fumbled.

"After the tribunal decision, our response was to tell Duterte to tamp down tensions and talk bilaterally with China, and there was no evidence of follow-up by us in terms of our own military exercises or diplomatic initiatives to enforce the findings of the tribunal," he said. "There has been next to nothing on this. We still haven't had a freedom of navigation mission that actually challenges the Chinese artificial islands."

Is it any wonder then that Mr Duterte concluded that Mr Obama wasn't serious about defending the rule of law in the South China Sea? Close watchers of the Filipino leader could have predicted this kind of thing. Before his campaign for the presidency in August 2015, he told supporters, "If America cared, it would have sent aircraft carriers and missile frigates the moment China started reclaiming land in contested territory."

Of course, America didn't do that. It didn't even send the navy into Filipino territorial waters claimed by China in the South China Sea after an international tribunal ruled that those waters were Filipino. Instead, the Obama administration acted as if international law would implement itself. But it never works that way. The rule-based system Mr Obama endorses requires a great power to defend it.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2016, with the headline 'The Philippines just blew up Obama's Asia pivot'. Print Edition | Subscribe