“The point to stress is this: no one is stopping a US Navy warship. The Chinese are not stopping US Navy warships,” Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told me during a Defense Writers Group breakfast. Sen. John McCain and other lawmakers have pressed hard for the Obama Administration to execute more visible Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the region to demonstrate American resolve and ensure the sea lanes are free for all nations to use.
Russel made the intriguing point that the Seventh Fleet and its Pentagon leaders do not necessarily “announce every FONOPs, so some things are visible; some things are only visible to people with radar and tracking.”
“The Chinese are not being let off the hook,” Russel says, adding that the PRC’s “claims have lost any credibility” with nations in the region. Of course, China has no legal leg to stand on since the UN tribunal ruled incontrovertibly this summer that China has no legal claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea.
In other intriguing points, Russel told us he has seen no “material change” in the US-Phillipino relationship, while wryly noting “there’s a lot of noise, a lot of stray voltage” coming from Manila. New President Rodrigo Duterte, of course, has cast aspersions upon the character and parentage of President Barak Obama, insulted the US Ambassador to Manila and seemed to indicate his country would make major changes to its relations with the United States by stopping joint military exercises and expelling US Special Operations troops from the country.
“We’ve been through a lot worse in our 70-year history,” Russel says.
China is eagerly pursuing Duterte, hoping to pry the Philippines away from its treaty relationship with the United States. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang has confirmed Duterte would meet President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang on an Oct. 18-21 trip to Beijing, where they will all get to enjoy a “deep exchange of views” on regional and bilateral issues. That may not be a bad thing, according to the senior State Department diplomat.
As Duterte continues to speak big, the question that needs answering will be, is he actually doing anything to harm or fundamentally change his country’s relationship with the United States. As Russel put it: “There’s a difference between talking about these things and doing them.”