Thursday, May 19, 2016

Philippines Establishment Ready to Go to War Over Scarborough Shoal--With Rodrigo Duterte

I have a piece up exclusively at Asia Times, Meiring, Murder, Subversion, and Treason: Duterte’s Beef with US.  Go read it!

It unpacks the story of Duterte’s coolness to the United States dating back to the Michael Meiring incident in 2002.  Duterte’s spokesman recently cited the Meiring case in explaining his attitude toward the U.S., leading to a New York Times ‘splainer that I characterize as a feeble effort to handwave aside a pretty major problem and sideline an extremely awkward, pivot-unfriendly narrative of ongoing US shenanigans in the Philippines.  Read my piece and you’ll see why.

In my Asia Times piece I go with the conservative and better-documented allegations, which are pretty damning.  Basically, Meiring looks like a CIA op tasked with a bombing campaign in Davao City to advance US objectives and just one piece of ongoing US interference in Mindanao that sticks in Duterte’s craw.

That’s bad enough, but it’s only a small fraction of the eyepopping rumors that circulate about Meiring.  I’ll address those in a separate post.

Here I’ll stick with Duterte.  

For the reasons described in my Asia Times article and below, Duterte is not an enthusiast for U.S. military operations inside the Philippines.

Duterte opposed the Balikatan exercises, at least as far as Mindanao is concerned, objected to the use of an airport in Davao City as a U.S. drone base, and he’s unlikely to be an enthusiastic helpmate for the pivot.  Duterte wants to have bilateral exchanges with the PRC on the issue of Scarborough Shoal and undersea resource development.  

In the course of President Obama's congratulatory phone call, Duterte stated he would try a multilateral approach to PRC but "if there’s no wind to move the sail, I might opt to go bilateral."

Duterte's qualms about the U.S. military relationship and openness to dealing with the PRC have occasioned disquiet in Manila's pro-US government departments, and provoked systemic pushback.

The blizzard of exit statements given by the outgoing Aquino administration look a lot like a rewrite of recent history meant to focus and define the Philippine-US narrative exclusively in the context of a burgeoning struggle with the PRC in the SCS, and relegate to insignificance the rather checkered history of US-Philippine military and security cooperation.

And they look like part of a sustained, long planned effort to box in Duterte, limit his options, and pre-empt possible moves by him away from the current US-Philippine strategy for gaming the SCS issues.  

The Manila establishment, in other words, looks ready to go to war over the Scarborough Shoal--with President Rodrigo Duterte. 

Given the friendly relationship between the anti-Duterte Manila establishment, the US government, and the Western press--and Duterte's apparent disinterest in playing the foreign media game--expect the pro-pivot SCS narrative to get "overweighted" in the international media and diplomatic discourse and contribute as needed to getting Duterte and his populist/insufficiently pro-US agenda chewed up  perhaps a la Rousseff, Kirchner, and Maduro in the Philippines' no-holds-barred political arena.

Clearly, all is not lost for the United States, given the strong U.S. relationship with the Philippine military and civilian elite—backed up by Philip Goldberg, U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines, ex Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research and one of those imperial bladerunners who finds their way in and out of hotspots around the world (Note: As of May 20, Goldberg is slated to be replaced by Song Kim, apparently because of personal animosity with Duterte)-- and the fact that Duterte’s opponents are entrenched in key central government institutions in Manila.

For some time, the Manila establishment has been systematically planting its flags and deploying its forces to defend the current China policy--founded on participation in the U.S. rebalance and keystoned by confronting the PRC through the UNCLOS arbitration process--in anticipation of an adverse outcome in the presidential election.

Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, the legal maestro of the Philippines’ UNCLOS arbitration case, declared at a recent forum that a favorable Hague ruling will leave only 1551 square kilometers of the “South China Sea” in dispute i.e. victory is within reach & it would be foolish/criminal to fritter away Philippines’ rock-solid claims in order to make nice with the PRC.  

Carpio made this case at a forum “held in Camp Aguinaldo and was attended by military personnel, representatives from embassies and the Department of Foreign Affairs.”  Presumably, everybody in the civil & military establishment is expected to sing from the same hymnal on the importance of sticking with the arbitration route.

Just in case Duterte tries to duke it out with the uniforms in the Department of National Defense and the suits at the Department of Foreign Affairs, he can also worry about the Senate.  I’m guessing opposition in the Senate will insist that any deal Duterte works out with the PRC must involve an explicit PRC acknowledgment of Philippine sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal and acceptance of the Philippines EEZ.

And beyond that, there’s also Carpio’s shop, the Supreme Court.  Carpio stated last year that impeachment is the proper remedy for any president that violates Philippine sovereignty by dealing improperly with the PRC on EEZ matters, for instance by offering a deal on delineation of the EEZ that accepts anything less than 200 nm for the Philippines.

And in any case, if the arbitration case goes the Philippines’ way, I don’t see any difficulty for the Department of National Defense to start EEZ-assertion patrols with fishing fleets without too much deference to any objections from Duterte, messing it up with PRC vessels, and eventually invoking the aid of the US.  This is something I think the US Navy lusts for and a new Hillary Clinton administration may not be unwilling to provide; consider the FONOPs farce simply a way of keeping the SCS pot boiling until the arbitration ruling comes down, Obama’s on the golf course, and Clinton is president.

On top of that, the New York Times report of its exit interview with Aquino led with:

President Benigno S. Aquino III said Thursday that the United States would be obligated to take military action in the South China Sea if China moved to reclaim a hotly contested reef directly off the Philippine shore.

But he suggested that there would be a harsh response if China decided to [reclaim Scarborough Shoal], saying that in his view the United States would be forced to defend the Philippines or risk losing its credibility in the region.“It has to maintain its ascendancy, moral ascendancy, and also the confidence of one of its allies.”

An interesting statement on several levels, not the least of which is the president of the Philippines apparently drawing a red line for the president of the United States.

Beyond that, nothing says "militarization" like "threatening military action if somebody reclaims an island" and I imagine the other ASEAN countries viewed with interest but not too much enthusiasm Aquino's effort to provide a justification for U.S. military action in the South China Sea.

More significantly, perhaps, Aquino seemed to be trying to do the expected incoming Clinton administration a solid by helping extract the SCS from the confines of the "international law" box where Obama has tucked it to the dismay of China hawks (in which the U.S. has no position on Scarborough sovereignty and can do little if anything to block reclamation legally), and let it roam the wide open "U.S. national security/credibility" spaces where "anything goes" to protect vital American interests.

Also, as a domestic matter, Aquino is trying to take the ball out of Duterte's hands by declaring that U.S. strategic interests on Scarborough Shoal can and should legitimately trump whatever deal he thinks of working out with the PRC.

Thanks, Noynoy!

And if Duterte goes too far in his bilateral dealings with the PRC, the Philippine media has already test-driven the strategy to paint him as an ignoramus, a stooge, and/or in thrall to Chinese gold.

Bottom line: the US will not surrender its strategic opportunities in the Philippines and South China Sea dispute lightly, and I expect its allies in the Philippine establishment to do their best to deter and obstruct Duterte as needed from taking Philippine PRC policy down an undesirable path toward appeasement. 

Duterte’s election, in other words, gives the PRC another potential lever to work in the dispute, but not a decisive one, especially if the China hawks have anything to do with it.  Which they will.  In my opinion.  

So Duterte might decide to let the SCS process grind on and expend his political capital on domestic issues like corruption, public order, and the challenge to national unity posed by his home island of Mindanao--issues in which the US has played a brutal role over a century and shaped Duterte's perceptions of the US relationship.

It can also be said the US built its modern military toolkit by porting best practices of the genocide against Native Americans in the US homeland to the brutal counterinsurgency against the Moro on Mindanao after the Spanish-American War.

Mindanao is the place where Jack Pershing served.  Donald Trump has erroneously tagged Pershing with the brainwave of putting pig’s blood on bullets to freak out the Moro.  Actually, it was a junior officer who suggested the idea, which Pershing rejected.  What an officer (not Pershing) did try was burying a dead assailant in a pig’s carcass, which didn’t have the desired demoralizing effect.  See Robert Fulton’s Moroland 1899-1906: America’s First Attempt to Transform an Islamic Society pp. 176-77 for the story.

One innovation of the Philippine War that did stick was waterboarding.  Here’s the cover of Life Magazine in 1902 with the picture. 

Judging by the caption, this was a punishment for stone-throwing.

Despite the current obsession with the South China Sea, territorial, colonial, and imperial issues have always been a big, if unwelcome, part of the U.S. equation for the Philippines.

Indeed, "terrorists on Mindanao" was seen as the key way to get the US military nose back into the Philippine tent after eviction from Subic and Clark in 1992; and there's sometimes a whiff that the U.S. and its friends in the Department of National Defense might have been ready to step up and stir the pot if there wasn't enough action down there.

Not just Michael Meiring.

The US military, via a JSOC command, was engaged for the last decade or so with the notorious Abu Sayyaf militant group we now hear so much about.

Abu Sayyaf was actually a collection of the usual suspects i.e. Muslims who fought the Soviets under the U.S. aegis in Afghanistan and returned home to do mischief.  Apparently Abu Sayyaf was enabled by high-level protectors in the Philippine military, who saw them as a potentially useful asset against the Moro independence movement on Mindanao and providing useful pretexts for the extension of central government control over the island via martial law.

I haven’t seen anybody else write about it, but it looks to me like Abu Sayyaf lost its covert government sponsorship in 2003, when the main Moro insurrectionary outfit, the MILF, wrote a letter to George W. Bush that opened a negotiated track.  I suspect this initiative was midwived by Muammar Gaddafi, who was a big supporter of the MILF; in 2003 Gaddafi had started his rapprochement discussions with the U.S. and I think the Moro got the message to make nice with the States.

Abu Sayyaf has degenerated into a kidnap/ransom enterprise whose main utility appears to be to provide a pretext for the US to do security operations on Mindanao while elements in the military apparently still provide it with protection.  Duterte let it be known his first act as president will be to declare war on Abu Sayyaf in its final stronghold, and corrupt Philippine officers who didn’t resign before he took office would find themselves on the front lines: “And if you are taken hostage there, say your ‘Our Fathers’ because I will never, never pay anything to retrieve you.”

And the U.S. government has tagged rich rewards on fugitive terrorists to orchestrate security operations on Mindanao and the surrounding islands with its preferred central government forces, sometimes with disastrous results.

The U.S.-advised fiasco at Mamasapano resulted in the death of  44 members of the Philippine Special Action Force a year ago, in January 2015, as I described in my piece, Mamasapano: the Philippines' Benghazi.

President Aquino's dubious role in the operation exposes him to a lifetime of legal jeopardy, jeopardy that probably becomes more imminent if Duterte successfully reorients the Philippines' PRC diplomacy and prompts a national rethink of the costs, benefits, and myriad skeletons in the closet of the US-Philippine relationship.

Duterte’s election is a reminder that there's more to the United States in the Philippines than white sailor suits, grey ships, and heroic confrontations with the PLA Navy.

As I conclude in my Asia Times piece:

The Meiring case is simply an inflection point in a multi-decade and ongoing US program of misjudgment, misbehavior, and mayhem in Mindananao that continues to the present day.

Unfortunately for the United States, that campaign has gone on for fourteen years right under the disgusted nose of the man who is now poised to become president of the Philippines.


Pineapple-in-Chief said...

you need to hyperlink to your article

Godfree Roberts said...

Cannot find the Asia Times article. Link?

China Hand said...

i apologize for prematurely posting the piece. i accidentally hit 'post' instead of 'preview' & left it up. Now it's in its final form, links & all, updated & revised. tks your patience