Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Washington’s ‘pivot’ to Asia hits snag with new Philippine regime


As part of the Barack Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia to counter the growing power of China, Washington has been expanding its air, naval and military forces in the Pacific. This includes re-establishing a military presence in the Philippines, a former colony and strategic ally. But this part of the pivot has become less dependable since the May election of President Rodrigo Duterte, whose politics are marked by nationalist and anti-American demagogy.

At the recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Laos, Duterte called Obama a “son of a bitch” — for which he later apologized — and a few days later announced he was canceling any future joint naval patrols with Washington in the South China Sea.

“Philippines Pivots Away from the US” and “America’s Pacific Pivot Is Sinking,” noted headlines in the Sept. 14 and 19 Financial Times. “China is now in power, and they have military superiority in the region,” Duterte said that week.

Duterte was elected May 9, getting the highest total with 38 percent of the vote. Running as the “anti-establishment” candidate, he mixed profanity-laced nationalist speeches, promises to ease poverty and a pledge to use violence and murder to end rising crime and drug trafficking.

Duterte has long-standing relations with Stalinist political forces in the Philippines. He is backed by the leftist Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), which has accepted posts in the government.

Duterte presided over hundreds of “anti-crime” killings during his years as mayor of Davao.

He has said that if the Supreme Court or anyone else seeks to curtail his murderous war against drug-induced crime, he will impose martial law. But he intends no inroads against capitalist rule.

Business friendly

By “assuring there is peace and order,” Carlos Dominguez, Duterte’s governmental finance officer, told Bloomberg News, “he has been business friendly.”

Dominguez, who owns the Marco Polo Hotel in Davao, said the government will work to assure “business regulations are not restrictive.”

The Philippines, a colony of Spain, was seized by emerging U.S. imperialism in 1898. Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos were killed over the next few years resisting U.S. military occupation. Following independence in 1946, Washington maintained its military presence and backed a succession of semicolonial regimes, including the brutal Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship that ruled for over two decades, most under martial law.

The U.S. rulers viewed supremacy in Asia and the Pacific as the spoils of its bloody victory over Japan in the second worldwide imperialist war. It established military bases throughout the area, patrolled by the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Next to Hawaii, home of the Pacific Command, the Philippines played a pivotal role. The Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base there were the largest U.S. bases outside its borders. Both were logistical hubs for Washington’s wars in Korea, Vietnam and the first Iraq War.

Under the impact of its defeat in Vietnam, Washington’s ability to control the region against anti-colonial revolts weakened. In the Philippines a mass rebellion toppled Marcos in 1986. Sustained popular protests continued against the U.S. military bases, and in 1991 the Philippine Senate refused to ratify a new treaty for their lease. Washington was ordered to leave the next year. As China’s economy and reach has grown, Beijing began building military bases on reefs throughout the South China Sea, including off the Philippine coast.

In response, Washington has sought to shift the weight of its armed forces to the Pacific, opening new bases, increasing military exercises in the region and positioning 60 percent of its naval warships there by 2020. Countering Beijing in the South China Sea has been a centerpiece of Washington’s course.

Since 2002, some 500 U.S. troops have been stationed in the southern Philippines, conducting operations against Abu Sayyaf, an Islamist terrorist group. Another 6,000 U.S. military personnel have been engaged in ongoing training exercises. U.S. naval visits have increased.

In January, the Philippines began implementing a military pact that would allow thousands of U.S. troops and military equipment to be stationed at Philippine bases, opening the way for Washington to re-establish a large-scale military presence. In March the two countries began joint naval patrols in the South China Sea.

But Duterte says that he intends to pursue “an independent foreign policy.” While abiding by Manila’s treaties with Washington, he wants to “open alliances” with Beijing and Moscow as well. “The Philippines is not a vassal state. We have long ceased to be a colony of the United States,” he said Sept. 5.

Duterte announced Sept. 12 that he wants U.S. forces to withdraw from the southern Philippines. And as joint military exercises were preparing to get underway in early October, he said that they would be the last, because “China does not want” them.

War on drugs targets workers

A hallmark of Duterte’s election campaign was the pledge to wage a war on drug sellers and users. “Do your duty, and if in the process you kill,” he told police officers July 1, the day after his inauguration, “I will protect you.”

Since then, over 3,500 people have been murdered by police or police-organized vigilantes in this “war on drugs.” Some 20,000 have been arrested, cramming the country’s already grossly overcrowded jails. Those targeted in this campaign are overwhelmingly working people.

In this atmosphere, seven union leaders and activists were killed in vigilante murders in September.

Following his inauguration, Duterte’s government declared a cease-fire and opened negotiations with the Communist Party of the Philippines and the two main armed organizations fighting for the rights of Filipino Muslims, known as Moros, in the south. 

The armed wing of the Maoist CP, the New People’s Army, is reported to have dwindled to less than 4,000 from 26,000 in the 1980s. Its activity today centers on assassination, extortion and kidnapping in parts of the countryside.

Duterte has included figures associated with the CP in his cabinet, saying he wants an “inclusive government.” The CP has praised him for “standing up” to Washington. It has also backed his “anti-crime” campaign. 

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