POSTSCRIPT / June 3, 2018 / Sunday


Opinion Columnist

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US assurances too little, too late?

UNCLE SAM’S efforts to woo back the Philippines even while President Rodrigo Duterte is infatuated with Beijing look like a case of too little too late — but a way may still be found for the White House to regain Malacañang’s favor.

For starters, US President Donald Trump, whose eye Duterte has been trying to catch, will have to match the lauriat of aid, loans and investments that China President Xi Jinping has been serving Duterte from Day One.

Not only that. Trump should come around to endorsing, even if only impliedly, Duterte’s violent war on drugs that has been denounced by many world leaders and respected institutions. Welcoming the strongman in a state visit would be a tremendous plus.

Those moves could not only be costly to American taxpayers but also dent Trump’s political capital. Somebody has to pay, however, the price of US neglect of an old ally that is suddenly strategically important.

Washington has a lot of catching up to do. China’s ambassador to Manila did his job well taking advantage of the difficult transition from President Barack Obama to Trump during which the White House failed to pay Duterte and his country the attention due them.

The Philippines, with its strategic location, happens to have a key role in the US containment of China. But with Duterte having drifted toward Beijing, the Philippines’ part in the American geopolitical scheme has become somewhat blurred.

Sources said that in the negotiation of the 1951 PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty and the forming of the now defunct Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, when Filipino and US diplomats discussed potential aggression in the region, they had in mind China. Apparently that reference has not changed.

Despite his denial, the warning this week by Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie that the US has extensive experience in World War II blowing up small man-made islands in the Western Pacific referred to China’s militarized artificial islands in the South China Sea.

McKenzie told the media that he was not trying to send a message to China, but he was. He also reassured US allies, the Philippines among them, not to worry about Beijing’s buildup in the disputed sections of SCS. The message appeared to be that Big Brother is there.

In his briefing at the Pentagon about US capability to neutralize military installations dotting the SCS, McKenzie said:

“We have a lot of experience, in the Second World War, taking down small islands that are isolated. So that’s a — that’s a core competency of the US military that we’ve done before. You shouldn’t read anything more into that than a simple statement of historical fact.

“We continue to seek areas to cooperate with China where we can. But, where we can’t, we’re prepared to certainly protect both US and allied interests in the region.”

Similar brave, if threatening, words were uttered Saturday by US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at an international security forum in Singapore. He lashed out at China’s setting up weapons systems on its man-made islands to intimidate neighbors.

Mattis warned that the US’s disinviting China from a multinational naval exercise this summer was an “initial response” to the militarization of the islands. “Much larger consequences,” he added, could follow if China refuses to be more “collaborative” with other nations.

He said the US will continue to provide defense equipment and services to Taiwan – which China regards as a rogue province. He did not mention assistance to other allies in the region such as the Philippines.

• US to catch up in courtship of Phl

THE WHITE HOUSE will have to work overtime convincing Malacañang of American resolve to give Manila its due.

Filipinos had watched in disbelief as the US, for whom it fought in the last Pacific War, paid more attention to rehabilitating Japan, the erstwhile enemy.

Although the US maintained security installations in key locations in its former colony under a Military Bases Agreement (which expired in 1991), it failed to help the Philippines develop its own defense capability – leaving its military the weakest in the region.

The historical wrongs that sometimes crop up in Duterte’s speeches should be studied, and addressed, by the US if it finds worrisome his being courted by China. With Beijing’s offering aid and comfort, Washington halfway around the globe may find itself drifting farther from Manila’s consciousness.

(A biography writer has mentioned personal hurts of Duterte as having contributed to his disenchantment with America. It seems he once applied for a US visa to visit somebody close to him but his application was rejected.

(Last year, I asked PCOO Secretary Martin Andanar about the visa matter, but he ignored my query despite his boasting of an executive order having been issued to implement a Freedom of Information policy.)

As the US Navy stepped up its freedom of navigation challenges to China’s controlling and claiming exclusive rights to features it has built up in the high seas, its Pacific Command has been renamed the US Indo-Pacific Command.

The move looks like a recognition of then President Obama’s “pivot” of naval focus to Asia-Pacific – a move of the Democratic leader that Trump, a Republican, has dropped.

The renaming of the command without significant change in its military assets and area of operation was described officially as “a largely symbolic move underscoring the growing importance of India to the Pentagon.”

The command, whose area of responsibility is the greater Pacific region, including India, has about 375,000 civilian and military personnel.

The renaming was announced Wednesday by Secretary Mattis in a turnover ceremony where Admiral Philip Davidson took over from Admiral Harry Harris, whom Trump has nominated to be ambassador to South Korea.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of June 3, 2018)

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