Tense Philippine-U.S. Relations Will Surge And Then Fall Under Trump
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has flipped his country’s old foreign relations formula on its back since taking office in June by pushing the United States away in favor of China. U.S. President Donald Trump shows early signs of pulling the Philippines back into its fold of friendly Pacific Rim countries, which it never totally left anyway.
Relations will improve for a while. Later they won't.
Duterte, in office since June, has threatened to cancel U.S. military aid after decades of cooperation as he courted aid and investment deals with China. The 72-year-old leader known for all sorts of bold remarks once called U.S. ex-president Barack Obama “son of a whore.” The United States should prepare to leave, he also said last year.
The Philippines and the United States, which colonized the Southeast Asian country for about 50 years through World War II, are expected to pick up their old friendship under Trump. Relations are already getting better.
Trump and Duterte talked by phone in early December, with the U.S. leader implying what his counterpart wanted to hear most: no American interference in the Philippine anti-drug campaign that has left between 5,000 and 6,000 dead from extrajudicial killings. Duterte hotly defends his approach to the illegal drug trade and has bashed people in Europe and the United Nations as well for questioning it. Trump, as part of his America-first ideals, is hardly obligated to take a stand.
“Early indications, especially following the phone call between Trump and Duterte, suggest that the two will be able to establish a working relationship,” says Carl Baker, director of programs at the think tank Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu.
Those indications began at the military level last month before Trump took office.
Joint patrols for Chinese vessels outside Philippine territorial waters will disappear, per an understanding reached last month by militaries from both sides. China will like that. U.S. military personnel had helped the relatively weak Philippine armed forces since 2014 do naval exercises aimed at scouting for Chinese vessels in South China Sea waters that Manila claims.
But other military relations picked up last month when a U.S. Pacific Command admiral met with the Philippine Armed Forces chief of staff agreed to keep up “fairly robust” cooperation on humanitarian aid and counter-terrorism work, Baker says. U.S. advisers have helped Manila since 2002 control restive rebel insurgents in the country’s southern islands. Washington can easily offer aid because it signed a mutual defense treaty with Manila in 1951 and a Visiting Forces Agreement that took effect in 1999.
Duterte also approached Beijing for talks shortly after taking office in June to help ease the South China Sea dispute. China claims most of the 3.5 million-square-km sea that's rich in natural resources and shipping lanes. Chinese vessel movement and islet-building have pushed into Manila’s ocean exclusive economic zone since 2012, causing a showdown in the world court (the Philippines won) before Duterte took office.
But the Philippines is weaker than China militarily. It also needs development aid and investment. China can give that, and armed conflict is unlikely as the two sides are getting along.
China won't like a renewed friendship with the United States under Trump, and therein lies the challenge of bringing the Philippines back into American arms.
To realize U.S. Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson’s comments about blocking Chinese expansion in the contested sea -- a goal aimed not only at helping Manila -- the U.S. government may ask the Philippines to let in more American troops or grant access to nearby waters for military use.
“If Trump's 'America First' is taken to its logical conclusion, then the U.S. will become much more demanding of the Philippines in the future when it comes to military cooperation to address the South China Sea and terrorist threats,” says Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at University of the Philippines. Trump, who aims to save American jobs, may offer the Philippines less of a market for its vast population of overseas migrant workers and give the country relatively little American investment.
Duterte would hang tight to his China relations, and why not?
“I think that down the road, U.S.-Philippine relations will be cordial at best, but essentially cold compared to previous years,” Batongbacal says.