Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s relationship with the United States has never been easy. Throughout his lifetime, he had a difficult and contentious relationship with both Americans and their superpower government. The Filipino president has claimed, inter alia, that U.S. authorities subjected him to humiliation on multiple occasions.
According to Duterte, when he was a congressman U.S. authorities harassed him during a transit flight via American territory. He has also regularly referred to the infamous ‘Meiring incident’, when a suspected American intelligence officer was flown out of Davao under suspicious circumstances, and without his permission as the then-mayor of the city.
In retaliation, Duterte, during his long tenure as Davao’s chief, blocked Americans from using the city’s airbase for counter-terror operations in the southern island of Mindanao. So, when he became the Philippine president in 2016, many took his threats against the century-old Philippine-U.S. alliance seriously. And when former U.S. president Barack Obama openly criticized his human rights record, Duterte showed no hesitation to fire back with incendiary rhetoric.
As for former President Donald Trump, Duterte developed a strong rapport with his fellow populist in the White House, but refused to visit the U.S. even once amid his hostile relationship with broader American state institutions and media. When the U.S. Congress imposed sanctions on his allies, the Filipino president unilaterally abrogated the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which provides the legal framework for large-scale American military presence in the Philippines.
The election of Joseph Biden, a supposed master of warm and personalized ‘gumbo diplomacy’, raised hopes for a reset in bilateral relations. Manila was seemingly upbeat, stating that Duterte “look[s] forward to having close and friendly relations with the Biden administration.” But the Filipino president’s decision to reject the full restoration of the VFA in June underscores deep strategic fault lines, which have undermined the Philippine-U.S. alliance. It surely complicates Biden’s efforts to enlist regional allies in its bid to constrain China’s rise.
On the surface, both Biden and Duterte are similarly consummate politicians. In stark contrast, Obama was a former constitutional professor and activist, while Trump was a longtime reality show celebrity and real estate magnate. Spending decades in national politics, Biden has had to learn the art of pragmatism and the virtues of compromise to get things done.
The same can be said about Duterte, who has also been active in politics since his 30s, serving in multiple positions of government from prosecutor to mayor and congressman, throughout multiple administrations. And yet, both men are now riding diametrically opposed political waves.
On his part, Duterte is the ultimate representation of authoritarian populism in Southeast Asia and a staunch critic of liberal democracy. One could argue that the Filipino president is the most prominent advocate of a more muscular version of the so-called “Asian values” doctrine, which celebrates tough leadership and a disciplined society at the expense of human rights and civil liberties.
Geopolitically, Duterte is a firm believer in the principle of ‘non-intervention’ in the domestic affairs of Asian societies, thus fundamentally rejecting any criticism of his governance record by external powers, especially the West.
As for Biden, he has, quite surprisingly, become the most ideological American president since President Ronald Reagan, who once famously described the communist regime in Moscow as an ‘evil empire’. During his first presidential speech before the U.S. diplomatic community, Biden spoke of his “Summit of Democracy” and reiterated America’s commitment “to defend democracy globally” and “to push back authoritarianism’s advance”.
Throughout the year, the U.S. president has actively courted major democratic allies and strategic partners, from Japan and South Korea to Australia, India and revitalized ties to NATO. One could even argue that Biden is quietly nurturing an “Asian NATO” along with Australia, India and Japan in a bid to counter the rise of China.
The immense ideological gap between Biden and Duterte largely explains why the Philippines was barely mentioned in the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, a major departure from the previous U.S. administration. It may also explain why the Biden administration, which has conducted a flurry of virtual and in-person summits with like-minded Western and Asian powers, has largely ignored the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The only senior-level U.S. official to visit Southeast Asia in recent months is Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who, during her first visit to the region, skipped the Philippines altogether. In response, Duterte has shown little interest in engaging the Americans and repeatedly warned that the fate of bilateral security cooperation with the Pentagon will depend much on Biden’s willingness to offer large-scale aid and COVID-19 vaccines.
Moreover, Duterte, perhaps more vocally than his ASEAN counterparts, has also publicly rejected any alignment with the Biden administration against China, even at the height of the Whitsun Reef standoff earlier this year. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the Filipino president is in no mood to restore the VFA anytime soon.
An Enervated Alliance
It took almost four months before Biden bothered to call his Filipino counterpart, who refused to make any definitive commitment on the renewal of the VFA passed the May deadline. To assert his primacy in determining his country’s foreign policy, Duterte made the unprecedented decision to issue a gag order against his top cabinet members, who have been vocal about strengthening defense ties with the U.S. against China.
Although the Filipino president unilaterally abrogated the defense deal in early 2020, his more America-friendly deputies managed to temporarily restore the deal on two occasions, arguing that maintaining military cooperation with the Pentagon is indispensable for the Philippines’ national security interests.
Each suspension meant the six-months-long process of VFA abrogation, which requires close coordination by both treaty allies, would be postponed by another 6 months. The first suspension came in June last year, and the following one in November on the eve of Biden’s election. So, by May of this year, the two sides had to either restore the VFA or risk its full abrogation.
In response, the Philippine defense and foreign policy establishment worked hard to renegotiate the terms of the VFA to make it more amenable to Duterte. Following several rounds of negotiations, Philippine Ambassador to the U.S. Manuel “Babe” Romualdez struck an optimistic note by claiming the terms of the VFA have been sufficiently reformulated and “improved” to ensure Duterte will renew the deal altogether.
Since the proceedings of the Philippine-U.S. negotiations are confidential, no details have been provided on what precise terms were tweaked by Duterte’s deputies. To everyone’s surprise, however, the Filipino president kept mum on the VFA issue almost two weeks past the May deadline, energizing his anti-U.S. base at home who began calling for abrogating all major defense deals with the U.S., including the 1951 Philippine-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty.
As a compromise, however, Duterte agreed to another six-months suspension of the VFA abrogation, which means that the next deadline will be before the end of the year. This means much will depend on the likely summit between Biden and his Filipino counterpart on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in November. It’s unclear what Duterte is exactly looking for, although he is likely waiting for the arrival of U.S.-donated COVID-19 vaccines before making any major decision.
It’s also unclear whether Biden is willing to make any major concessions to the outgoing Filipino president, whose term will end by June of next year. What’s certain, however, is that the protracted uncertainty over the fate of the VFA has enervated the century-old Philippine-U.S. alliance, as the two countries chart divergent paths in a post-American Asia.