After sixty-five years of military ties between the United States and the Philippines, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has finally decided enough is enough. In a blistering speech on 7 October, Duterte stated: ‘For as long as I am [here], do not treat [the Philippines] like a doormat because you’ll be sorry for it. I will not speak with you. I can always go to China.’ According to CNN, Duterte’s rhetoric greatly differs from that of his predecessors in that he has always run on a platform that much favours China – supporting the Asian powerhouse in the South China Sea disputes and negotiating for greater economic cooperation – and he has been critical of past US-Philippine relations. In the hopes of seeking ‘security benefits from the US defence umbrella and economic returns from trade and investment in China,’ this would mark an unprecedented pivot towards the Eastern superpower after decades of hostility.
The US-Philippine relationship is a complex one that has been constantly subjected to a continually changing narrative. The Mutual Defence Treaty, signed in 1952, brought US aid to the island nation. Based on a shared belief in democratic principles and a commitment to economic and military ties throughout the Cold War and post-Cold War eras, the rapport enjoyed by the two states has had a profound impact on both the American and Filipino peoples. Today, an estimated 3.4 million Americans claim Philippine ancestry, and more than 300,000 American citizens live in the Philippines. Indeed, USAID programmes provide in-country support in the fight against poverty and advise the government on critical reform agendas, while also maintaining programmes for conflict resolution, livelihood enhancement, and economic development. In 2003, the US classified the Philippines as a ‘major non-NATO ally,’ after Duterte’s predecessor, President Arroyo, lent support to the Bush administration’s Global ‘War on Terror.’ In addition, both militaries have maintained a strong working relationship over the years: annual bilateral military exercises known as the ‘Balikatan’ or shoulder-to-shoulder exercises continue to help combat extremist militias throughout the Philippines, and US and Philippine agencies have collaborated countless times to bring charges against terrorists, including to bring about implementation of extradition treaties.
However, the election of President Rodrigo Duterte has marked a new era for US-Philippine relations. Rather than seeking a closer relationship with the US, Duterte has sought to amend relations with China, as well as implement a policy of brutal crackdowns on crime across the state, reneging on the terms of human rights deals signed by his predecessors. The Human Rights Watch has since recorded upwards of 1,400 extrajudicial killings in the southern Philippine city of Davao, a city on which Duterte had vowed, prior to his election, to focus his security efforts. After the US responded with censure, Duterte embarked on a smear campaign of the Obama administration, calling President Obama a ‘son of a whore,’ stating he would not tolerate a lecture from the president on human rights. The Obama administration responded by cancelling a planned meeting scheduled for 5 September. On 9 September, the American Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines issued an official statement, voicing ‘growing concerns over developments that could harm the long-standing optimism of American business to invest in the Philippines […] the increased number of killings during the heightened anti-drug campaign is harming the country’s image, as portrayed by international media, and some investors are now asking whether this campaign reduces the rule of law.’ Following that announcement, on 11 September, Duterte continued by announcing ‘I am not a fan of the Americans… Filipinos should be first before everyone else. In our relations with the world, the Philippines will pursue an independent foreign policy. I repeat: the Philippines will pursue an independent foreign policy.’
This coming week, Duterte has plans to meet with Chinese leadership: an unprecedented move for the Philippines, who have traditionally been a staunch American ally in the Pacific. According to Business Insider , Duterte will bring a congregation of more than two hundred and fifty Filipino executives to China, where they will meet with Chinese industrial and political elite regarding ‘deals in a range of sectors, from rail, and construction to tourism, agribusiness, power and manufacturing.’ After years of nearly coming to blows over disputes in the South China Sea, a positive relationship between the Philippines and China would be ground breaking.
Chinese leadership have already responded positively to Duterte’s overtures; China has recently lifted a ban on fruit exports from twenty-seven Philippine firms as a ‘gift’ to the country, and preliminary comments from Beijing have signalled its willingness to participate in greater bilateral economic relationship. Francis Chua, chairman emeritus of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, commented ‘the president decided that he wanted to have a better relationship with China. We are neighbours… This is actually what the president is thinking: instead of fighting, why don’t we just become friends?’
The repercussions of a strong Chinese-Philippine alliance are very significant for the US in a region where Chinese power, both hard and soft, has grown considerably in the last decade, and the US has found itself to be playing a losing hand. Combating Chinese gains internationally has been tantamount to US foreign policy for the past two presidential administrations, and will become more of a key discussion point as the presidential election moves forward into November. Losing a long-standing ally like the Philippines would be a major blow to the US, especially in a region where it continues to hold key interest. It is certain, regardless of who becomes the next American president, that resisting Chinese power in the Far East will be a cornerstone of American foreign policy for the foreseeable future.