Republic of the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has followed through with a promise to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between his country and the United States. His termination of the agreement triggers a window for negotiation before it formally closes, but the agreement has been unpopular since the day it was enacted in 1998. Citizens of the Philippines have seen the agreement as favoring US over Filipino interests, and as a lingering form of American colonialism. President Trump’s willingness to let Duterte walk away from it has pleased Duterte, who called for Trump’s re-election after the American President’s remarks.
Commentary in the press and from think tanks has turned on the degree to which the move threatens to bring the Philippines into China’s orbit. There are some reasons to doubt that a desire to become a Chinese tributary is the driving force behind Duterte’s move. The Philippines won a major judgement against China as regards the South China Sea, one that Duterte has leveraged for a favorable oil deal. Like Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion, or India throughout the Cold War, Duterte seems to be pursuing a non-aligned strategy of obtaining benefits from all partners. He is throwing off the American partnership because he finds it stifling, but is not thereby trying to enter his nation as a protectorate of a new Chinese Empire. He aims for independence, not to trade a relationship that still feels like colonialism for one that actually is colonial.
Likewise, there is little support among his population for entering into a Chinese alliance. There is a longstanding anti-Chinese prejudice in much of southeast Asia that is fed by the relative wealth of ethnic Han Chinese citizens in other countries, plus the willingness of the People’s Republic of China to interfere in the internal affairs of those nations in the interests of such ethnic Chinese. The Philippines is not different in this regard, and the current fears of a pandemic coronavirus have only heightened the tension. Duterte is already struggling against an intense public perception that his efforts to help China deal with the crisis are against the interests of his own nation.
The underlying reason for Duterte to wish to end military cooperation with the United States lies in his approach to his nation’s wars. The Philippines is fighting an internal war against drug cartels, and another one against Islamist groups in its south. The United States has long been contributing to these wars. In 2007, I traveled to the Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines that the United States Special Operations Command was operating at that time. US Special Forces, Marines, and Navy Special Warfare assets were there training the Armed Forces in the Philippines even as those forces were actively engaged in combat against groups like Abu Sayyaf, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and Jemaah Islamiyah.
America’s approach to counterinsurgency was at that time solidifying as a result of our own war in Iraq. With the help of Australian officer David Kilcullen, US forces led by David Petraeus were codifying what was successfully turning the Iraq War into what looked at that time like a victory. The Sunni Awakening combined with the Surge allowed us to raise the costs of being an insurgent, while also raising the benefits of coming in and joining the counterinsurgency. This basic approach remains the fundamental American counterinsurgency strategy, as I recently explored here in “Attrition Plus Prosperity.”
It is not, however, the only possible counterinsurgency strategy. Duterte favors an alternative the strategy of annihilation that was successfully used by Sri Lanka versus the Tamil Tigers. Pursuit of this strategy has been causing significant chafing between the US and Filipino governments.
Duterte’s “drug war” has killed over 20,000 people (nobody knows the true extent). In January, the US triggered the Magnitsky Act over the violence. The US then denied a US visa and froze the assets of Senator Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa, a close ally of Duterte who is now the National Police Chief and figurehead of the war on drugs…. When the US helped the army end its five-month siege of Marawi city in 2017, not only did it fail to prevent the destruction of the city. It oversaw what Amnesty International alleged were violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.
The Chinese state will not object to a strategy of annihilation. Drawing on Mao Zedong’s theories of guerrilla warfare, the Chinese believe that the population is the ‘sea’ in which the guerrilla ‘swims.’ The population must therefore be ‘dried up,’ as the analogy would suggest, so that the guerrillas will die off. In what it calls its “Xinjiang” province (“New Frontier”), the Chinese are pursuing such a strategy against the Uighur people allegedly as a counterinsurgency measure. In the West, that strategy is regularly labeled genocide.
The United States’ approach intends to fight counterinsurgencies in a morally good way as far as possible. It is an open question whether or not this approach can always work. It worked in Iraq, and it is my analysis that it would have continued to work if we had not abandoned Iraq in 2011 in ways that allowed sectarian abuses to return. The approach has not worked at all in Afghanistan, and I have argued that our strategy can never succeed there. I think the strategy can succeed in the southern Philippines, as suggested by the success of this approach at fragmenting the Moro National Liberation Front and bringing a substantial part of it out of the insurgency. Nevertheless, it has not thus far succeeded, and even in Iraq our failure to sustain the victories we won with that strategy is obvious to observers.
This creates a substantial problem for the American government in arguing against alternative strategies such as the annihilation strategy. We can make moral philosophical arguments against annihilation strategies and genocide, but in war pragmatic arguments are often the only persuasive ones. As our own William Tecumseh Sherman argued, the need to bring about peace through victory has its own moral force. In his mind, it justified many actions we would today consider war crimes including destroying civilian homes and food sources in the teeth of winter. When he applied the same strategy as General of the Armies to various Native American nations, later historians did call it genocide. The strategy, brutal but effective, laid the foundation for America’s consolidation of its west.
If we cannot show that our current moral way of war can also be a successful way of war, these harder ways of war are likely to be resumed. Our failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in helping the Philippines to bring about a successful closure to its fights in the south, are being watched abroad. Sri Lanka won its war, they notice. China’s genocide against the Uighur is proceeding without pause. The United States has not shown that it can either stop these genocides or win its counterinsurgencies.
Unless and until that changes, expect more governments to slide out from under American leadership on counterinsurgency. Expect more atrocities abroad, and more genocides.