Imagine a game of pass the ball played between the United States and China using a live bomb with the Philippines in the middle of it.
This was how President Rody Duterte envisioned the precarious position of the country in calling for world powers to exercise restraint in the conduct of military drills in the contested West Philippine Sea.
He said in Singapore during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit that the conduct of military drills in the area is not wise since it would create friction.
“So, if you just keep on creating friction, little friction, one day, a bad miscalculation could turn things (for the worse), Murphy’s Law. If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong,” he said.
His worry, of course, is of the Philippines being caught up in the conflict.
“I do not mind everybody going to war, except that the Philippines is just beside those islands. And if there’s a shooting there, my country will be the first to suffer. That is my only national interest there. Nothing else,” Duterte said.
In contrast, his predecessor, Noynoy Aquino, took active measures to provoke China that resulted in the buildup of structures on artificial islands in the disputed region.
During the visit of former US President Barack Obama in April 2014, then President Noynoy Aquino presented the signed “executive” deal called the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that allows American forces to have a rotating presence in the country.
Obama had launched an Asian pivot policy that was meant to contain China and EDCA was a key component of the program since the Americans will have a guaranteed station for their military forces which are a stone’s throw from the Chinese mainland.
Consistent with the Obama policy of shutting out and “containing” China, Noynoy refused to hold any dialogue with Chinese officials and instead, on US directives, filed a case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the dispute.
The PCA gave an award favorable to the Philippines since it invalidated the nine-dash line claim of China but it was unenforceable since China did not recognize the proceeding as it blamed Noynoy for the maritime conflict due to his reluctance to talk.
Noynoy had cast his lot with the American pivot policy and even instigated the WPS standoff by sending a Philippine Navy Hamilton-class cutter it recently acquired from the US to the disputed area which China viewed as a militarization of the dispute.
The standoff and China’s sending of civilian ships to the disputed area were just what Obama was hoping to exploit to turn American opinion in his favor in the Asian pivot policy.
Rody is now putting his best foot forward in seeking an early conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the WPS that will govern activities and ensure peace and stability in the disputed territory to undo the mistakes of Noynoy and Obama in provoking China’s aggressive actions in WPS.
American analysts consider the Asian pivot of Obama as a blunder and his “greatest foreign policy mistake.”
Obama referred to himself as the first Pacific president and the pivot is touted by Obama’s defenders as a great success that properly rebalanced America’s foreign policy focus away from costly interventions in the Middle East to Asia which is viewed as the center of the 21st century economy.
The pivot was a failure due to its serious negative side effects in other parts of the world, military analyst John Ford who is a Captain in the US Army JAG (Judge Advocate General) Corps and who studied at Peking University said.
He added the pivot was based on a series of flawed assumptions which was that US foreign policy had previously neglected the Asia Pacific, that Asia’s rising importance in the global economy called for the assignment of more military resources to the region and that the United States could afford to pull back from the Middle East and other regions.
“The pivot did not contain the rise of China. Instead, China became more aggressive, pressing its claims to the South China Sea and to the Senkakus,” he said.
From the start of his term, Rody had realized Obama’s mistake in the region that Noynoy religiously followed.
Rody’s successful efforts to win China’s trust merely undid the mistakes of Noynoy and Obama that nearly resulted in a point of no return in the maritime conflict.