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Foreign Policy

After Duterte: Is the Philippines Pivoting Back to the U.S.?

Nov 24, 2021

During a 2017 meeting in Beijing with his Filipino counterpart, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi hailed the “golden period of fast development” in bilateral relations. Standing side by side with then-Philippine Foreign Minister Alan Peter Cayetano, who would later become the Speaker of the Philippine Congress, the Chinese diplomat highlighted the signing of as many as 22 cooperation agreements in fewer than six months. 

With China finally becoming the Philippines’ top trading partner for the first time in the modern era, Wang boldly declared, “If anyone wants to reverse the current progress it will harm the interests of the Philippine people and that is not what we would like to see.” After years of acrimonious relations amid the festering South China Sea disputes, the two neighboring states seemed to have finally found a common ground to build on a cooperative future. 

This golden age of bilateral relations may find itself short lived, as the Philippines has gradually pivoted back to its former colonizer and sole treaty ally, the United States. During his twilight months in office, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who earlier declared his “separation” from America during a high-profile visit to the U.S., is singing to a different tune. 

The Filipino president has fully restored the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and publicly thanked the Biden administration for its COVID-19 pandemic-related assistance, specifically the large-scale donations of U.S.-made vaccines. Meanwhile, his top deputies and generals are overseeing a steady build up in defense cooperation with the Pentagon, as the two allies marked the 70th anniversary of their Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) this year. If anything, next year, as Duterte enters his twilight months in office, the two allies set to resume “full scale” war games, with the number of scheduled bilateral military exercises expected to reach a new record-high

A Brief Honeymoon 

When Duterte first came into power, there were good reasons to expect a major overhaul in the country’s foreign policy. On one hand, the Filipino president was no fan of Americans, whom he repeatedly accused of arrogantly interfering in his country’s domestic affairs. 

Much of Duterte’s anti-Western antipathy was rooted in his personal experience as a provincial statesman in Mindanao, an impoverished southern island that has been a site of constant U.S. military interventions throughout the past century. From the American colonial occupation of the Philippines in the early 20th century, to the Bush era Global War on Terror (GWOT), Mindanao paid a heavy price for Washington’s overseas imperial interventions. 

Moreover, Duterte, who came of age during the Vietnam War, is also ideologically antagonistic towards the West. Among his university mentors were Jose Maria Sison, a former professor and founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines, as well as Nur Misuari, the charismatic leader of a Muslim secessionist group from Mindanao. But the Filipino leader also had more pragmatic reasons to rethink his country’s century-old alliance with America. 

In Duterte’s view, the U.S. was hardly ever a reliable partner, often treating the Philippines as nothing but a colonial outpost in Southeast Asia. In light of the South China Sea disputes, he once reportedly asked the U.S. ambassador to Manila, “Are you with us?”, implying that the U.S. will abandon its Southeast Asian ally in an event of conflict in the area. 

In stark contrast, Duterte views China as a rising superpower, which has no history of interventions in modern Philippine politics. Crucially, he saw the Asian powerhouse as a potential partner for national development as well as a strategic patron, especially in light of global criticisms of Duterte’s scorched-earth drug war and overall human rights record.  

Things got to a strong start during Duterte’s maiden visit to Beijing in 2016, when China offered $24 billion in investments as well as potential cooperative agreements to de-escalate tensions in the South China Sea, including a joint development agreement to share hydrocarbon resources in the area. 

This promising start, however, was compromised by two important factors. First of all, critics began to accuse China of “pledge trap,” as Beijing’s promise of large-scale infrastructure investments went largely unfulfilled. A combination of public skepticism, regulatory uncertainty and chronic disagreements over terms of contract and interest rates largely torpedoed big-ticket Chinese-funded projects. 

Second, the two sides failed to finalize any major agreement to deepen cooperation in the South China Sea amid disagreements over legal terms of reference, as Beijing insisted on its “nine-dashed-line” claims while the Philippines reiterated the 2016 arbitral tribunal award at The Hague. 

If anything, a series of major incidents, including the sinking of a Filipino fishing boat in the Reed Bank in 2019 by a suspected Chinese militia vessel as well as the months-long standoff over the Whitsun Reef this year, further strengthened public skepticism in the Philippines towards any cooperation with China. 

Back to the Future 

Amid unfulfilled hopes of deepened economic cooperation, rising tensions in the South China Sea, and public clamor for a stronger stance towards China, the Philippine national security elite seized the opportunity to restore frayed ties with the U.S. 

Throughout the years, traditionally-minded Filipino defense and foreign policy officials, many of whom trained in the U.S., resisted any defense agreement or any major cooperative deal with China in the South China Sea. In fact, the Philippines’ strategic elite steadily pushed for expanded defense cooperation with the Pentagon throughout the years, with bilateral military exercises with the U.S. reaching as many 281 in 2019.  

Both Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, a former general and defense attaché in Washington, and Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., a Harvard-trained lawyer and journalist, have consistently backed the maintenance and even expansion of defense cooperation with the U.S. Both top cabinet officials have also been openly critical of perceived Chinese intrusion into Philippine waters, often with colorful language

Thanks to the incessant lobbying of the Philippine defense establishment, Duterte agreed to fully restore the VFA with the U.S. during the U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to Manila in late July. When I asked the Philippine defense secretary about the apparent about-face, he confidently replied, “Personally, playing at the back of my mind, I said it seemed that the President was not serious in terminating the VFA [after all].”  

Shortly after, both Lorenzana and Locsin visited Washington to mark the 70th anniversary of the MDT, the cornerstone of the Philippine-U.S. alliance. Following the meeting between top Philippine and U.S. officials, both sides agreed to resume their Bilateral Strategic Dialogue later this year, conduct a 2 Plus 2 Ministerial Dialogue early next year, and even negotiate a new defense framework to enhance maritime security cooperation.

Having successfully restored the VFA, the two allies are now focused on fully operationalizing the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which allows U.S. troops to preposition weaponries and strategic assets in vital bases close to the South China Sea. In fact, during a speech in Washington this year, Lorenzana proposed major upgrades in the MDT in order to further deepen maritime security cooperation in light of the rising tensions in the region.

Amid rapidly improving bilateral relations, the newly-installed Philippine military chief General Jose Faustino Jr. recently announced that major bilateral war games in the South China Sea will resume in “full scale” in near future, with more than 300 joint military activities scheduled next year. By all indications, ahead of the inauguration of a new Filipino president in mid-2020, the Philippines and U.S. are rapidly reviving their century-old alliance. 

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