“America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow.” These are the words of the Philippines president announcing his “separation” from the United States. A large part of the recent Philippine separation can be explained by the personality of its leader. The man makes Trump look like Winston Churchill. For a list of Duterte greatest hits, see here. Although the statement has been qualified, the “separation” is alarming for the United States and its allies as the bilateral alliance is the bedrock of the American strategy for achieving South East Asian stability. The defection of the Philippines, however, may not be particular to its leader but a consequence of diminished American credibility and the inability to clearly define US foreign policy objectives.
With the Syrian red line, the lament for the ruin of American credibility is rife. See here, here, here, and here. Credibility has an unflattering history in American foreign policy. President Obama complained of the “fetish” for credibility and how it results in “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone.” In the most notorious example of credibility being pathological, the United States waged what most agree was a meaningless war in Vietnam largely to maintain credibility.
The United States is suffering from a lack of credibility amongst our South East Asian allies, but Syria is not the root cause. The academic literature points to states evaluating their opponents power and interests when judging the credibility of their statements. So backing down from a Middle East quagmire wouldn’t reduce the credibility of the United States in the Far East as the US doesn’t have any strategic or economic interest in the civil war. The lack of American credibility in the Far East results from our inability to clearly state our vision for the region and to successfully implement our stated policies.
Asia is on the cusp of a reorientation of the regional “rules” with a revisionist China offering the middle powers an alternative to the American lead order. What China proposes is something modeled on their past “Sinocentric” tribute system although updated to include modern intuitions such as international financial banks and foreign direct investment. China has the final say on non-domestic regional politics and will not limit its use of power and economic leverage against those who disagree. An obvious example is China’s behavior in the South China Sea. But members of the China led order are offered a deep respect for state sovereignty and China wouldn’t take issue with the tactics used in the drug war of a neighbor. The American order is just the opposite. The United States will largely refrain from great power politics with the regional players yet will involve itself in their domestic matters from time to time. This approach takes shape as a hub and spoke alliance network and multilateral trade agreements. Increasingly, the middle powers are being pressured to choose which camp they are in, the separation being one example of a regional actor defecting from the US.
Why did the Philippines separate from the US? The vital element of the American order is whether or not the region thinks the US staying power is reliable. China does not need to convince any of the regional actors that China is not going anywhere. America does and American credibility for remaining committed to the region is suspect. The sources for the lack for credibility are varied including the failure of congress to approve TPP, the republican nomination of someone who openly complains and questions the wisdom of our regional alliances and the Obama doctrine itself. There never appeared to be any organizing principle of the Obama doctrine but series of ad hoc and inconsistent policy prescriptions. The signature Obama policy in Asia is the pivot which is itself contradictory, attempting to both economically engage China yet militarily contain them. Most actors are left wondering what exactly the US intends for the region and how committed they are towards pursuing whatever goals those are. It’s clear that China’s rise alarms the region and that most members prefer the benign hegemony of America to the great power politics of China. But with the staying power of the US questionable combined with the perception that the Untied States is a declining power, it isn’t surprising that Duterte would take advantage of the political leverage created by the recent diplomatic row with President Obama to bandwagon with China.