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Yankee go home, Yankee hang around: Mixed messages from East Asia

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DonKirk31By Donald Kirk

The president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, is riding a populist wave with his declarations that he doesn’t need American military or commercial aid or agreements for U.S. forces to advise and assist the armed forces of the Philippines.

He seems to want to reverse careful efforts on both sides at improving ties since the Philippine Senate in 1991 refused to renew the lease on huge U.S. air and naval bases.

Sign near Panmunjom, Korea.

Sign near Panmunjom, Korea.

Duterte’s insults against the U.S. resonate beyond the Philippines. Japanese and Korean leftists often demand withdrawal of American troops. Citizens on Japan’s southernmost island prefecture of Okinawa have been calling for years for the U.S. to give up its vital air and marine bases while battling construction of a marine air station on the northeast coast.

In Korea, leftists have fought against construction of a naval base on the southern side of Jeju, claiming the U.S. envisions it for U.S. warships. They want the U.S. to pull out most of its troops while a “progressive” takes over the presidency after the next election ― whether on schedule for next December or before then if the Constitutional Court approves Park Geun-Hye’s impeachment.

All these outcries against U.S. military power have American military people, bureaucrats and their friends in think tanks wringing their hands, but President-elect Donald Trump may be right. Why should the U.S. waste so much time, effort and emotional energy combating critics who love to appear defiant in the face of U.S. neo-imperialism? Why not let the Americans go home while history runs its course without them?

That advice would indeed be relevant in the case of the Philippines. The armed forces and police of the Philippines are notoriously weak and corrupt. Duterte is a bully who boasts of having personally shot three people while mayor of the large southern port city of Davao and has encouraged the extrajudicial killing of thousands of suspected drug dealers.

The Philippine armed forces have neither the firepower nor the will to defeat the twin menaces of communist and Islamic revolts and would never dare combat the Chinese in the South China Sea. That’s why Duterte chose to befriend China’s President Xi Jinping, who rewarded him by reopening rich fishing grounds after the Philippines gave up claims to the Scarborough shoal within its territorial waters.

Ties between Americans and Filipinos go deep considering both the historical legacy of American colonialism and the migration of millions of Philippine citizens to the U.S., but so what? Rules and regulations, compounded by corruption and inefficiency, compromise foreign business and industry in a society dominated by 100 or so wealthy families, including Duterte and his relatives from the south.

Why should U.S. forces bother to play war games or provide aid for the Philippines if Duterte is so confident they’re not needed? Should the Philippine case serve as a precedent for U.S. operations in Northeast Asia, where the stakes are higher?

The common denominator is China, which has the power if not the will to repress North Korea’s nuclear program. China also is challenging Japanese control of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and is not happy about notions of Taiwan’s incarnation as an independent country, instead of a renegade island province.

How much difference would it make if U.S. forces in Japan and South Korea were no longer guarding against China and North Korea, leaving these U.S. allies to fend for themselves?

One answer is that Japan would do away with Article 9 of its “peace constitution” banning Japan from waging war beyond Japanese territory. A renascent Japan would pose a powerful antidote to Chinese and North Korean ambitions.

Taiwan, never on hostile terms with Japan after the Japanese took over the island in the 1895 war with China, might welcome Japan as an ally, but Koreans would see them as craving to regain lost power.

Thus the U.S. bases in Japan and Korea are a deterrent to Japan as well as China and North Korea. Duterte faces no such threat while bowing to China and promoting himself as a dictator.

The Americans should forget him. He’s not worth the trouble.

Donald Kirk has been covering the Philippines, Korea and Japan for decades. He’s at kirkdon4343@gmail.com.

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