THE new United States military strategy is officially called “rebalance” to Asia, although the term “pivot” is also used. It is in essence a shift in the focus of the world’s most powerful armed forces from Middle East to Asia. That is actually another way of saying that the US is now concerned not only with the economic might of China but also its growing military assertiveness in the Pacific.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter met over the weekend with the defense ministers--including our very own Delfin Lorenzana--of the 10-member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
The attention given to Asean is not surprising because, unlike in other parts of Asia, US influence in Southeast Asia is relatively weak with, until recently, the Philippines as the only bright spot.
In a speech before the meeting in Hawaii, Carter summed up the purpose of the “rebalance.” “The US will continue to sharpen our military edge so we remain the most powerful military in the region and the security partner of choice,” he said. He talked about making US attack submarines more lethal and of spending more money to build undersea drones that can operate in shallower waters—among other plans.
But the “rebalance” is undergoing and will soon undergo tests. The US in the past six years had a willing supporter in Southeast Asia of the pivot with the Philippines and former president Benigno Aquino III. That has changed with the assumption of Rodrigo Duterte as president in July The US will also have its presidential polls in November.
Carter, though, has expressed the belief that the rebalance will continue whether the Democrats’ Hillary Clinton or the Republicans’ Donald Trump will become the next US president. I tend to believe him because despite the rhetoric of American leaders, they are the same when it comes to the basics of protecting US interests in the world.
As for Duterte’s anti-US rhetoric, Carter described US-Philippines relations as “ironclad.” That, I would say, is another way of saying the US is in a wait-and-see posture as far as Philippine foreign policy direction is concerned. Duterte has so far not gotten into the substance of those ties. He told US troops to leave Mindanao but turned around later. He said that the coming US-RP military exercises would be the last but his subalterns interpreted that differently.
Duterte is set to visit China this month, The US will surely be monitoring what agreements will be forged by China and the Philippines, especially on the disputed territories in the South China Sea, and how it will impact its rebalance. I think that if the US sees its ties with the Philippines threatened by Duterte moving closer to China, it will be the time that it will come up with aggressive countermoves.
Analysts have noted that the Duterte administration will find it difficult to sever ties put in place for decades already. For example, the closeness of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the US military goes beyond the annual Balikatan exercises. Meaning that, to use Carter’s words, the US is the AFP’s preferred “security partner of choice.” I doubt if China’s armed force will be seen as a better alternative.
I also read somewhere an ominous statement from an official of the US State Department. Apparently, the US believes that Duterte’s pivot to China can only go as far as what the Filipino people will allow him. The US is still the Filipino people’s ally of choice and going against that preference will be vigorously opposed. On this, the US state department official mentioned two words: “people power.”