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Foreign Policy

Biden, Duterte and the Future of the South China Sea Disputes

Nov 27, 2020

Over the past four years, a peculiar dynamic shaped the U.S.-Philippine-China strategic triangle in the South China Sea. In a remarkable break from his predecessors, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has sought to revolutionize his country’s strategic orientation by tilting into China’s orbit of influence. 

This marked a rupture in the century-old U.S.-Philippine alliance, undermining Washington’s ability to leverage the Southeast Asian country’s military bases to fully project power in the region. This clearly pleased Beijing, which has vehemently opposed expanding American military footprint in its peripheries. 

At the same time, the U.S. President Donald Trump managed to develop a strong personal rapport with his Filipino counterpart, thanks to their similar populist leanings and profound dismay with the liberal international order. 

As a result, the Philippines has managed to adopt a modicum of strategic equidistance vis-à-vis both superpowers, keeping its alliance with the U.S. while deepening ties with China. President-elect Joseph Biden, however, threatens to disrupt this peculiar strategic moment, as he seeks to build a regional coalition against China under a more multilateralist approach. 

Stormy Waters 

The U.S.’ colonization of the Philippines in the early-20th century coincided with its emergence as a global power. Until the end of the Cold War, the Philippines effectively served as America’s forward deployment base in Asia. 

The closure of permanent American bases in the Philippines raised hopes of a more independent foreign policy. But rising tensions in the South China Sea in the mid-1990s and the Global War on Terror, following the 9/11 attacks and the emergence of transitional terrorist groups in southern Philippines, brought back American troops. 

Eager to reassert Philippine sovereignty and expand strategic ties with China and Russia, Duterte tried to hamstring bilateral security cooperation with the Americans. He temporarily suspended joint naval drills in the South China Sea, nixed plans for joint patrols in the disputed waters, banned U.S. warships from using Philippine ports for conducting so-called “Freedom of Navigation” Operations (FONOPs), and, most crucially, prevented the Pentagon from prepositioning weapons systems in Philippine bases per pre-existing agreements. 

The U.S.-trained Philippine defense establishment, however, has consistently lobbied for robust military cooperation with the Pentagon. Thus, even despite Duterte’s best efforts, the fundamentals of the alliance remained intact throughout the past four years. 

It also helped that Trump shunned any criticism of Duterte’s scorched-earth drug war and human rights record, reportedly even praising the latter’s tough ‘law and order’ policies. To Duterte’s delight, the U.S. president even criticized his predecessor, Barack Obama, for taking a tough stance on human rights and democracy issues. 

No wonder then, earlier this year the Filipino president effectively endorsed Trump’ re-election bid, praising his American counterpart as “a good president and he deserves to be re-elected”. Warm ties between the two populists partly explains why Trump has enjoyed his highest overseas approval ratings in the Philippines. 

A combination of warm relations with the White House and strong pro-American lobby at home, especially among top generals and veteran diplomats, made it close to impossible for Duterte to fully downgrade the Philippines’ defense relations with the Pentagon. 

In fact, last year saw the Philippines and U.S. conducting close to 300 joint military activities, the highest among all American partners and allies across the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Though couched as non-traditional security and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, much of America’s military activities in the Philippines is focused on China and the festering disputes in the South China Sea. 

Nonetheless, efforts by the U.S. Congress, especially leading Democratic Senators, to punish Duterte’s human rights violations has threatened to disrupt the relationship. In February, the Filipino president unilaterally initiated the abrogation of the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which facilitates the large-scale entry of American troops for annual exercises and drills. 

The move came in response to the U.S. Congress-led efforts to impose sanctions against Duterte’s top officials, who have been accused of gross human rights violations under the so-called global Magnitsky Act.   

A New Bargain 

As many as 67 other police officials were targeted with travel bans and potential financial sanctions.

Among them was no less than Duterte’s erstwhile ally and former police chief, Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, who has faced a travel ban in the U.S. for his role in overseeing the bloody drug war in the Philippines. 

In outright defiance of the Philippine defense establishment and pro-American public, Duterte dropped the gauntlet by warning that the fate of the VFA will depend on the reversal of sanctions against his key allies. Top Philippine generals cautioned that more than half of joint exercises with the U.S. could be immediately jeopardized without the VFA. 

By June, just months before the six months activation of the VFA’s full abrogation, the Philippines temporarily restored the defense deal amid rising tensions in the South China Sea. Clearly, Manila worried about its ability to deter Chinese ambitions and claims in the area. Looking forward at the time, to the upcoming elections in the U.S., Duterte effectively kicked the can down the road, postponing proper negotiations until next year, under either a re-elected Trump or his Democratic rival. 

The prospect of a Joe Biden presidency, meanwhile, raises fears of a tougher American stance on Duterte’s human rights record. It could also mean personal sanctions against the outgoing Filipino president, whose constitutionally-mandated term ends in mid-2022. 

But the unexpectedly close and contentious presidential race, and the evisceration of a ‘blue wave’ down the ballot, means that the next American president will face immense pressure from a divided government, as Republicans will likely maintain strong hold on both the Senate and the Supreme Court. 

Biden will also be a ‘crisis president’, facing the triple challenge of COVID-19 public health crisis, a deep economic recession, and post-electoral mayhem. As a result, it’s highly unlikely that the incoming Democratic administration will be in a position to carry the torch of democracy, and will have to lean on strongmen allies such as Duterte. 

The Biden administration is also likely to downgrade trade and tech wars with China, while pursuing cooperation on shared global concerns such as nuclear proliferation, COVID-19 vaccines, and climate change. 

Nonetheless, president-elect Joe Biden and the Democratic establishment have embraced a more hawkish stance on China, including on the South China Sea disputes. From an outspoken advocate of “strategic empathy” for China, Biden has adopted a decidedly more strident stance on China in recent months, signaling a broader effort to assemble a regional coalition against Beijing’s ambitions. 

Getting the Philippines on board, and restoring the full status of the VFA, will be crucial to any multilateral effort by the Biden administration to check China’s expanding footprint in adjacent waters. 

Thus, it’s highly likely that the next American president will adopt a more pragmatic approach towards tricky allies such as the Philippines in order to pursue its grand strategy on China. 

In exchange for Pentagon’s access to key bases bordering the disputed islands and waters in the South China Sea, Duterte will likely drive a hard bargain, including assurances against further U.S. sanctions on human rights-related issues. 

The Biden administration will likely also have to provide concrete benefits, including in trade and investment front as well as COVID-19 vaccines, in order to win over allies such as the Philippines. In short, only months into office, the new American president faces tough strategic choices vis-à-vis allies, China and the South China Sea disputes. 

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