Duterte and the Future of US-Philippines Relations

Photo Credit: Global Nation

By: Andrew Watts, Columnist

The Philippines’ summer election of the firebrand Rodrigo Duterte, who replaced Benigno Aquino III as President, may have serious and adverse implications for what has been a close relationship between the Philippines and the United States. After President Duterte recently called both US President Barack Obama and US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg “son of a whore,” it is hard to think otherwise.[i] These brash comments, coupled with Duterte’s conciliatory tone toward China, have raised concern among American commentators that the Duterte administration favors not only a pivot away from the United States, but also the establishment of a more constructive relationship with China.[ii] US policymakers must carefully determine whether Duterte is serious in this regard and the implications for US interests in the region if he is.

A Special Relationship

The Philippines has historically been one of America’s closest security partners in Asia. Ever since the signing of the Mutual Defense Treaty in 1951, the two countries have enjoyed a close relationship, albeit one marred by brief periods of discontent—the latest of which culminated in the departure of US forces from the Philippines in 1992.[iii] Increasing concern over maritime security, especially in regards to Chinese actions in the South China Sea, motivated Filipino leadership to reemphasize its security relationship with the US.[iv] Recent security cooperation highlights include President Bush’s designation of the Philippines as a major non-NATO ally in 2003, the establishment of a bilateral strategic dialogue in 2011, the signing of a new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) in 2014, and the designation of significant US Building Maritime Capacity in Southeast Asia Initiative funds in both 2015 and 2016.[v][vi] These security initiatives are primarily focused around enhancing the Philippines’ maritime security, its ability to engage in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations, and its ability to respond to natural disasters.[vii]

 Duterte’s Revisionist Rhetoric

Despite this deep-rooted relationship, the Duterte Administration has threatened to tear it all down with his recent incendiary remarks. In addition to his derogatory comments toward President Obama and Ambassador Goldberg, Duterte has accused the United States of “import[ing] terrorism” to the Middle East and has demanded an apology from the United States for the “massacre” that it committed during the Philippine-American War.[viii] In another sign of his reorientation of the country’s policy vis-à-vis the United States, Duterte stated that American military forces should leave Mindanao, a southern province that is home to terrorist groups such as the al-Qaeda linked Abu Sayyaf.[ix] This rhetoric is aligned with his post-election declaration, “I will be charting a [new] course [for the Philippines] on its own and will not be dependent on the United States.”[x]

Duterte’s reasoning can arguably be found in his political origins. He is a self-described socialist who ascended to office after the 1986 popular demonstrations that led to the removal of the American-backed President Ferdinand Marcos and the restoration of democratic rule in the Philippines.[xi] As mayor of Davao City, one of the largest cities in the Philippines, Duterte argued that landmark security agreements, including the EDCA, should be scrapped if the rights of Filipinos are not respected.[xii] Now that Duterte is president, US policymakers and analysts are questioning whether Duterte will take this opportunity to steer the Philippines away from its longtime ally.

Normalization with China

Duterte has indicated a willingness to negotiate with China on Manila’s claims in the South China Sea dispute, despite strong US support and a favorable ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in July. This change in policy could be the combination of Duterte’s recognition of China’s military power vis-à-vis the Philippines as well as the economic benefits associated with a closer partnership.[xiii] Many Philippine politicians, after all, view China as a potential source of critical investment and infrastructure development and consequently downplay security tensions with Beijing.[xiv] While running for office, Duterte stated his openness to exchanging rail transportation investments in Manila for joint oil exploration rights in the South China Sea with Beijing.[xv]

Future of the US-Philippine Relationship

Though there is no consensus among American commentators, Philippine analyst Richard Javad Heydarin downplays Duterte’s rhetoric and argues that Duterte will pursue a pragmatic foreign policy defined by a “strategic rebalancing” between the United States and China.[xvi] In this event, the Philippines will seek to maintain its security benefits from the United States while also increasing trade and economic benefits from China. Duterte will likely limit the US military presence in the archipelago and prove to be a tougher negotiator than previous administrations when it comes to hashing out bilateral deals. If a serious rift in relations transpires, however, it will create difficulties for the United States in executing its counterterrorism strategy against groups located in the Philippines as well as hamper the US ability to counter Chinese expansionism.[xvii] Whether the commotion over Duterte’s election proves to be a real concern or a false alarm, Washington policymakers must be prepared to deal with a stronger and more independent Manila.

[i] Marina Koren, “The Philippine President’s Vulgar Warning to the President,” The Atlantic, September 5, 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/news/archive/2016/09/duterte-obama-extrajudicial-killings/498710/.

[ii] Sheena Chestnut Greitens, “The U.S.-Philippine Alliance in a Year of Transition: Challenges and Opportunities,” The Brookings Institution (2016): 3-4, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Paper-5.pdf.

[iii] Greitens, “The U.S.-Philippine Alliance,” 2.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Jim Garamone, “Philippines to Become Major non-NATO Ally, Bush Says,” U.S. Department of Defense, May 19, 2003, http://archive.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=28968.

[vi] Greitens, “The U.S.-Philippine Alliance,” 2.

[vii] Ibid, 2-3.

[viii] Joyce Ilas, “Duterte slams U.S. anew, says it ‘imported terrorism’,” CNN Philippines, July 9, 2016, http://cnnphilippines.com/news/2016/07/09/Duterte-United-States-imported-terrorism.html.

[ix] Ted Regencia, “Duterte to US forces: Get out of southern Philippines,” Al Jazeera, September 13, 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/09/duterte-forces-southern-philippines-160913003704576.html.

[x] Richard Javad Heydarian, “The Duterte Dilemma (and Why it Matters): China, the US Alliance and the Scarborough Shoal,” The National Interest, September 13, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/the-duterte-dilemma-why-it-matters-china-the-us-alliance-17689.

[xi] Maricar Cinco, “Duterte: I’m a socialist, not a communist; last card,” INQUIRER.net, April 18, 2016, http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/779984/duterte-im-a-socialist-not-a-communist-last-card.

[xii] Germelina Lacorte, “Duterte: Scrap VFA, EDCA if these will trample upon PH justice system,” INQUIRER.net, October 22, 2014, http://globalnation.inquirer.net/113197/duterte-scrap-vfa-edca-if-these-will-trample-upon-ph-justice-system#ixzz3uJnQWrv4.

[xiii] Thomas Donnelly, “Cold Water for a Rekindled Flame,” American Enterprise Institute, September 19, 2016, https://www.aei.org/publication/cold-water-for-a-rekindled-flame/.

[xiv] Greitens, “The U.S.-Philippine Alliance,” 3.

[xv] Pia Ranada, ”Duterte: China offering to build Manila-Clark railway in two years,” Rappler, June 21, 2016, http://www.rappler.com/nation/137177-duterte-china-build-manila-clark-railway.

[xvi] Richard Javad Heydarian, “The Philippines Under President Duterte,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, May 13, 2016, https://amti.csis.org/will-duterte-administration-mean/.

[xvii] Donnelly, “Cold Water for a Rekindled Flame.”

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