In China, Rodrigo Duterte and Philippines May ‘Pivot’ Away From U.S.

BEIJING — President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, one of America’s closest allies in Asia, has said he wants to reduce American military influence in his country and build closer ties with China.

But he has stopped short of offering to do what China would like most: scrapping an accord that gives the United States access to five military bases in the Philippines.

How far he is willing to go will be tested this week when he arrives in China on Tuesday for talks that are likely to produce signals of whether he wants to become a close friend of Beijing.

“If China succeeds in peeling the Philippines away from the United States, it will be a major win in Beijing’s long-term campaign to weaken U.S. alliances in the region,” said Andrew Shearer, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It will feed fears that the right mix of intimidation and inducements could influence other partners to distance themselves from Washington.”

Mr. Duterte has expressed doubts about whether the United States would come to the aid of the Philippines in a military showdown, and on the eve of his departure for Beijing he said he would be looking to buy Chinese weapons in his fight against terrorism.

The stepped-up American access to the Philippines, negotiated by the Pentagon under the previous government of Benigno S. Aquino III, was considered a mainstay of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asiastrategy that China has blasted as a containment policy, and that it would like to unravel.

Thailand, another American ally in Southeast Asia, has also increasingly turned toward China, raising the prospect that Washington faces frayed ties with two of its longstanding partners in the region.

How well China succeeds with Mr. Duterte will send signals throughout the region, where robust economic relationships with China are vital for most countries even as they fear its growing military clout — and its push for control of the South China Sea.

“China will be very watchful about how far Duterte wants to go,” said Zhu Feng, executive director of the Collaborative Innovation Center of South China Sea Studies at Nanjing University. “His pledge to distance from the United States, of course it’s very positive for China.”

In particular, Mr. Zhu said, China would like the Philippines to stop American use of an air base at Palawan, an island about 100 miles from the disputed Spratly Islands, where China has built three military bases.

The Palawan base significantly enhances the ability of American forces to project power into the disputed South China Sea, and anything that jeopardized that access would complicate United States military planning.

As China probes Mr. Duterte for strategic concessions, the new leader has his own shopping list for economic help from Beijing. In an interview with the state-run Chinese news agency Xinhua, released on Monday, he criticized the United States for being stingy, saying “only China can help us.” Read more…



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