The Philippines, Duterte, and Asian Geopolitics
The new president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has created a stir by lashing out at the US and dramatically declaring that he was realigning his country with China and Russia (and then sort-of undeclaring that shift).
A genuine realignment would shift Asian geopolitics: as the map above shows, the Philippines (blue) is the principal obstacle to China’s free access to the sea south of Japan (red). An allied or neutered Philippines would enable China’s drive to make the South China Sea a Chinese lake — and Duterte seems friendly to that effort.
It would be a tremendous blow to de facto American efforts to contain China geopolitically. The US has considered access to the Philippines crucial to its China policy since the late 19th century, and its position as a gateway to China was one reason that the US decided to subjugate and rule the islands in the wake of the Spanish-American War.
For China, the Philippines is something like Cuba is to the United States: a geopolitically crucial bit of offshore real estate. The US is still petulant about Cuba getting away from us in the mid-twentieth century, and, if you recall, threatened global nuclear war if Cuba exercised its sovereignty in a way that threatened American strategic advantage.
So China would be delighted to pivot the Philippines away from the US, but this will not be easy. Filipinos have a highly positive view of the United States, polling finds. Filipinos also value their independence and are quite concerned about China’s claims in the South China Sea.
China could attempt the model the US used in Latin America in the twentieth century: install or pay for a pliant local elite that ignores popular wishes, but that model is harder to pull off than in the past. Still, with Filipinos tolerating illiberal and erratic leadership, China might have a shot.