THE PIVOT to Asia piloted by President Obama has been rocked by setbacks that should concern everyone who believes that the United States must maintain a robust role in the Pacific at a time of China’s intensifying quest for power and influence.
A pillar of the strategy is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade pact, excluding China, that was negotiated by this administration. In this election year it attracted plenty of protectionist and nativist criticism. Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, riding waves of populist angst about the economy, opposed it. Hillary Clinton, who helped craft the pivot to Asia as secretary of state and who supported the trade agreement earlier, has come out against it, saying she didn’t like the details. In Wednesday’s debate, she insisted that if elected, her opposition would not change. “I’m against it now. I’ll be against it after the election,” she said. “I’ll be against it when I’m president.” This is a discouraging signal to the other nations that signed the agreement and want closer ties with the United States. China’s leaders must be thrilled.
The other shock came from Rodrigo Duterte, the outspoken president of the Philippines, who bridles at criticism from the United States of his violent, extrajudicial campaign against drug dealers and users in which hundreds have been killed. On a visit to Beijing, he doubled down on anti-American diatribes. Mr. Duterte announced a “separation from the United States. Both in military, not maybe social, but economics also.”
Never known for being subtle, Mr. Duterte also declared his affinity for authoritarian rule in China and Russia. In a meeting with Chinese and Philippine business people at the Great Hall of the People, he declared, “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world — China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.” Mr. Duterte left China with a goodie bag of loans and credits from a grateful Chinese leader, Xi Jinping. Russia’s ambassador in Manila invited Mr. Duterte to send in a wish list.
Mr. Duterte’s spin doctors quickly asserted he didn’t mean it, which seems to happen after every outburst. But this time he took concrete action, agreeing to bilateral discussions with China over the South China Sea. The Philippines lodged the 2013 complaint that led a unanimous international arbitration panel in The Hague to rule in July that there was “no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources” within its nine-dashed line around the disputed waters, a victory for a rules-based international order that could be eroded if it is now rolled back in negotiations.
The White House said on Friday that Mr. Duterte’s comments were injecting uncertainty into the relationship. That’s putting it mildly. One question is whether Mr. Duterte’s tilt may face pushback from his own military, which enjoys strong ties with the United States. Whatever happens in Manila, Washington needs to do more than watch the Philippines slide into China’s orbit. The pivot to Asia is looking rather unsteady, and it is worth fighting for.