Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is on a tear. In just the last three weeks, he has expressed a desire to separate his country from the U.S., declared his intention to kick U.S. military personnel out of the Philippines, and appeared ready to drop territorial sovereignty claims in the South China Sea in return for investment guarantees from Beijing.
Duterte's behavior might be considered brazen, boorish, even occasionally entertaining. But what's worth noting is what it tells us about the state of alliance politics in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. As China has grown in economic, geopolitical and military power, its neighbors have reacted almost uniformly negatively. The specter of Chinese domination in East and Southeast Asia unnerves and in some cases outright terrifies China's neighbors.
To balance this shift in power, China's neighbors can try to increase their own economic and military strength in two ways. First, they can increase their power internally, for example, by spending more on defense. In fact, there is evidence that China's neighbors have begun buying more weapons and building larger militaries.
Second, countries can increase their power externally through alliances and partnerships. Almost every one of the smaller countries neighboring China has taken this approach, most of them seeking closer ties to the United States. Although the U.S. is more powerful than China along any number of measures, China represents the greater threat because of its proximity to the countries of East and Southeast Asia.
The re-establishment of relations between Myanmar and the U.S., Vietnam's growing closeness with Washington, Singapore's agreement to host U.S. military forces, and even the Philippines' 2014 agreement to readmit U.S. troops to military bases after 25 years are all efforts to balance externally. From a political science perspective, these represent completely normal responses to perceived threats.
So what do we make of Duterte's current willingness to throw his relationship with the U.S. under the bus? What appears to be happening is another phenomenon familiar to political scientists: bandwagoning. In this case, a threatened, less powerful country essentially capitulates — perhaps because it cannot afford to build up its military, because there is no other external power with which to ally, or because the extent of domination makes resistance futile.
The classic example here is Finland during the Cold War. The extent of Soviet influence on Finland's foreign, economic and military policies was so great that today we refer to such a bandwagoning scenario as "Finlandization." In these situations, weaker countries essentially become at best neutral vis-à-vis their more powerful neighbors or at worst de facto satellites.
In the case of the Philippines, Duterte's government seems on the verge of shifting its loyalty to Beijing — essentially, Finlandization. During Duterte's visit to China late last month, he announced not simply his "separation" from the U.S., but he also concluded that "America has now lost," and as a result he was moving to become "dependent" on China. In exchange, the Philippines has evidently regained fishing access around the disputed Scarborough Shoal.
If the Philippines is realigning its foreign policy, there's not much the U.S. can do about it. It's foolhardy as well as impractical for Washington to entreat the Philippines to maintain an alliance it doesn't want.
The prudent course is for the U.S. to respect the wishes of Manila, scrupulously avoid any interference in Philippine politics and stay ready to re-engage. Meantime, the U.S. must also continue efforts — unilaterally if necessary — to ensure freedom of navigation in the international waters of the South China Sea.
There are plenty of reasons, though, to believe the Philippines is not engaged in a strategic realignment. Duterte has yet to renounce the 65-year-old mutual defense treaty between his country and the U.S. More important, our two countries have deep economic, political, societal and cultural ties that form the bedrock of the security relationship. A single Philippine president is unlikely to succeed in cutting them overnight.
From a broader geopolitical perspective, Washington also probably has little to fear. Throughout its rise, China has proved it has two strategic left feet. For instance, it has often offended the sensibilities, and sometimes the sovereignty, of its neighbors and failed to grasp the security dilemmas it generates throughout the region. As a result, U.S. treaty allies in Asia have tightened their relations with Washington, while nontreaty partners such as Vietnam have forged new ties with the U.S. that seemed highly unlikely a generation ago. Although Duterte's anti-American rants may sound like music to the ears of Chinese leadership, it doesn't make China less threatening to its neighbors.
John R. Deni writes about alliances and international relations for the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute. He wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.