Over the past six months, the Philippine-American bilateral relationship has reached its lowest point in history. Since his ascension to power, President Rodrigo Duterte has made good on his initial promise to pursue an ‘independent’ foreign policy, which, to him, mean less dependence on America, the Southeast Asian country’s oldest and sole treaty ally.
The first point of disagreement was Duterte’s decision to set aside the Philippines’ landmark arbitration case against China in the South China Sea. The new Filipino president favored constructive engagement with Beijing, primarily to avoid military conflict in the high seas and bring back large-scale Chinese investments to his country. The Obama administration, however, preferred the Philippines to maintain a hard stance and rally the world against China based on the arbitration award, which nullified the bulk of Beijing’s expansive claims across adjacent waters.
After extensive consultations, Washington began to publicly support the Philippines’ détente with China, but cautioned against setting aside the arbitration case in order to uphold rule of law in international waters. Bilateral disagreements reached a crescendo, however, when the Obama administration, beginning with the then American Ambassador Philip Goldberg in Manila, began to explicitly criticize Duterte’s scorched-earth campaign against illegal drugs. Ahead of their planned meeting on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, Obama and Duterte found themselves caught in an unprecedented diplomatic dust up.
The American president personally criticized his Filipino counterpart’s signature domestic policy, prompting Duterte to go so far as cussing at Obama -- an unprecedented diplomatic offense. Soon after, their bilateral meeting was cancelled. Highly indignant with what he saw as foreign intervention in domestic affairs of his country, Duterte began to threaten severing the Philippines’ century-old military alliance with America. By October, four months into office, the Filipino president visited Beijing, where he declared ‘separation’ from America in favor of alignment with the ‘ideological flow’ China and Russia.
Over the succeeding months, the Duterte administration negotiated military agreements with China and Russia, both of which offered advanced weaponries to modernize the Philippines’ emaciated military. Rhetorical outbursts, on both sides, were eventually translated into actual downgrade in Philippine-American relations. Towards the end of its term, the Obama administration, citing human rights concerns, began withholding delivery of American firearms to the Philippine National Police andthreatened to cancela $400 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) aid package.
Meanwhile, the Duterte administration scaled back a number of high profile joint exercises with the American military, namelythe Cooperation float Readiness and Training Exercise (Carat) and the joint U.S.-Philippine Amphibious Landing Exercise (PHIBLEX). The fate of the massive annual Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) exercises hangs in the balance. It will likely be relocated from the South China Sea to a less sensitive location, while the number of participants and the type of their exercises will be dramatically altered.
The election of Donald Trump Jr., however, has raised hopes of a reset in bilateral relations. So far, by most indications, the Duterte administration looks forward to a more cordial and pragmatic engagement with the new American administration. A combination of personal, ideological and strategic considerations underline a likely positive turnabout in Philippine-American relations.
Singing a Different Tune
In his first months in office, Duterte rarely uttered any positive remarks about candidate Trump, whom he, at some point, dismissed as a ‘bigot’. Once the celebrity-billionaire pulled off a surprising electoral victory, however, the Filipino president began to sing to a different tune: “I don’t want to fight now that Trump’s there. I would like to congratulate President Trump,” Duterte declared with a mixture of humor and good will. “May you live, Mr. Trump! We both curse at the slightest of reason. We are alike.”
Time and again, Duterte, whom some have dubbed as the “Trump of the East”, made it clear that he feels a sense of personal affinity with the new American leader, whom he has described as a kindred spirit, a fellow strongman and anti-establishment populist.ButManila’s optimismfor a reset in bilateral relations is based on a potential policy shift in America as well as improved communication channels, which were increasingly frayed under the Obama administration.
To begin with, the Duterte administration expects the “art of the deal” Trump to, unlike his predecessor, take a more pragmatic position on human rights and democracy concerns. After his brief conversation with Trump in December, Duterte made an astonishing claim that Obama’s successor actually supports his controversial war on drugs, which has come under fire from across the international community. (Neither the Trump transition team, nor the Trump administration has ever denied this).
Duterte was even more encouraged when Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson’s stubbornly refused to categorize the Philippine government as a human rights violator, despite coming under constant questioning by Republican Senator Marco Rubioduring a particularly gruelingconfirmation hearing at the Senate.There was further encouragement when President Trump, during his inauguration speech, declared that his administration does“not seek to impose our [American] way of life on anyone,” a clear indication that human rights and democracy promotion will take a back seat under his watch. This is a potential game changer in Philippine-American relations, because disagreements over human rights issues have been a key bone of contention in recent months.
The Duterte administration also quietly welcomes Trump’s likely more robustpushback against Beijing in the South China Sea. Time and again, Duterte has reiterated that his détente with China isn’t unconditional. Recently, he made it clearthat his administration could take a tougher position on China if the latter presses ahead with aggressive actions against Philippine interests in the South China Sea. Yet, so far, Duterte has shown little appetite for taking on China, since he seeks close economic ties with China and doubts the utility of confrontation absent full American military support for the Philippines.
If Trump takes a tougher stance in the South China Sea, however, this means Duterte can largely outsource constrainment of China to its treaty ally and/or risk confronting China. At the same time, Manila has made it clear that it would prefer to stay out of any full-fledged Sino-American conflict, if Trump irresponsibly sparks a war in the South China Sea. In short, Duterte wants to have the cake of improved ties with China while eating benefits of American military alliance.
Finally, the Duterte administration also hopes to leverage its strategic choice of appointing Trump’s former business partner, Jose Antonio, who is the owner of Trump tower in Manila, as its special envoy to Washington, D.C.Theaim is to optimizethe Filipino envoy’spre-existing ties with the Trump family tocreate a more direct and friendly communication channel with the White House. There are, of course, legitimate concerns about the possibility of things spiraling out of control if and when mercurial and larger-than-life figures like Duterte and Trump collide. For now, however, Manila is optimistic about a diplomatic reset with its oldest friend, America.
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Sun Chenghao Assistant Research Fellow, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations
James Curran Professor & Historian, Sydney University