The Philippines' pivot toward China under the Duterte administration is a consequence of the "vacuum" created by the United States' own neglect of its interests in the Asia Pacific, according to a US military strategy expert.
"We should understand that... we [the US] may be the reason that's happening— our own actions," said Marybeth Ulrich, professor of government in the Department of National Security and Strategy at the US Army War College in Pennsylvania.
Speaking to visiting journalists here, she said US President Donald Trump's rejection of his predecessor's pivot to Asia could partly explain why countries like the Philippines were cultivating stronger ties with China.
"You know, part of that is, I think, we have sort of rejected this pivot to Asia, [which] you didn't get to continue so much in this administration, so there's a vacuum," Ulrich said in a lecture for the 2018 East-West Center Senior Journalists Seminar.
"And so we should understand that when America is not leading, countries are going to look to other places," she said.
Next month, Trump will skip two major regional summits in Asia, the Asean Summit in Singapore and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in Papua New Guinea, in a move that has fueled doubts about US commitment to the region.
Ulrich noted how Trump's predecessor, former President Barack Obama, had sought to rebalance US role in the Asia Pacific in the face of China's growing influence.
"Obama had a vision of a pivot to Asia... which got torpedoed" under the Trump administration, the expert said.
Brian Harding, deputy director for the Southeast Asia program of the Washington-based think-tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, acknowledged that the US, in failing to follow through on Obama's thrust toward Asia, "had lost some ground" to China.
But he added there was still space for the Americans.
"Nobody in Southeast Asia wants to live in a China-dominated region. They want to live in a region where all the major outside powers are involved, wrapped up into these multilateral structures that keep us on our best behavior and let Asean drive the agenda," Harding told a separate briefing on Thursday.
He said it was crucial that the US continue its rebalancing act in Asia through an economic agenda, which he called the "gigantic missing piece" in US foreign policy in the region.
He said the US should do more "to show that maybe China's deals cannot stand up to scrutiny if you don't have an incorruptible leader in place," citing the case of Malaysia, whose new political leadership had withdrawn from China deals.
"I think we should be helping other countries make better decisions," Harding said.
Since coming to power in 2016, Duterte has pursued economic and military cooperation with China while expressing anti-US rhetoric.
In October 2016 — before Trump came into power — the Philippine leader announced his "separation" from the United States, saying he had realigned with China despite maritime disputes in the South China Sea.
Ulrich, however, noted that the US remained interested in building its soft power in the region, especially with traditional allies including the Philippines.
"I know we have done a lot with the Philippine counterterrorism, as far as that goes, and that's still ongoing, so I'm sure there's still a lot to be done with that," she said.
In spite of the China pivot, the US military continues to hold war games and military training with Philippine troops under the Balikatan exercises, and is active in disaster management in the country.
The seminar organized by the Honolulu-based East-West Center is an annual fellowship for journalists in the US and countries with substantial Muslim populations, who go on a three-week tour of US, Asia and Africa to study the role of religion in the public sphere.