By Frank Ching
Rex Tillerson, picked by U.S. president-elect Donald Trump to be secretary of state, stirred up a hornet’s nest when he condemned Chinese actions in the South China Sea, comparing the construction of artificial islands in disputed waters with Russia’s seizure of Crimea and saying that China’s access to the islands “is not going to be allowed.” As to how this would be done, he said: “The way we’ve got to deal with this is we’ve got to show backup in the region with our traditional allies in Southeast Asia.” Just who are these traditional allies? Why, the Philippines and Thailand, of course. Thailand was condemned by the U.S. when a coup in 2014 installed a military junta. Thailand enjoys close relations with China and is unlikely to join any embargo against China. As for the Philippines, its president, Rodrigo Duterte, has taken a hostile stance towards the U.S. since his inauguration last June. In October, while visiting China, he declared his “separation” from the U.S.
This came, surprisingly, after the Philippines scored a sweeping victory in its arbitration case with China, brought in 2013 under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. After three years of costly efforts, Manila won on most points but China refused to recognize the tribunal’s jurisdiction. So all Manila got was a moral victory. Duterte then had to decide his future course. The U.S., while backing the Philippines in its arbitration bid, had also been careful not to be sucked into a war with China. In 1995, Mischief Reef, claimed by the Philippines, was taken over by China. Manila was furious but ultimately accepted that there was not much that it could do about it. Now, China has built an artificial island on the reef.
Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, adopted a strong pro-Philippine stance and even referred to the body of water in which disputed reefs lie as not the South China Sea but the West Philippine Sea. But rhetoric only goes so far. In 2012, during a China-Philippines standoff lasting several weeks at Scarborough Shoal, claimed by both countries, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario pointedly recalled that Clinton had said that the U.S. “will honor its treaty obligations to the Philippines.” However, the next day, the State Department urged that “diplomatic efforts be used to resolve the current situation.” An unnamed American official was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, “I don’t think we’d allow the U.S. to get dragged into a conflict over fish or over a rock.” That was a wake-up call for the Philippines. America’s commitment to the country’s security wasn’t what Manila had thought it was.