As the Philippine Navy contingent returned home from participating in Australia’s Exercise Kakadu last month, a re-examination of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s uneasy though ongoing ties with the West may be relevant. Duterte’s contempt for the West has roots in past experiences and is exacerbated by Western reaction to his domestic policies, especially his crackdown on drugs in the Philippines. Perceptions of the West’s failure to stop China’s building of artificial islands in the South China Sea, its hypocrisy, and a lack of appreciation for his country’s bitter experience with colonialism also motivate his anti-West rhetoric. That said, his actions suggest that he can set aside personal and even ideological rifts with the West for the sake of larger national security and strategic interests.
While Duterte has yet to pay a visit to any Western capital two years into his term, his visits to major non-NATO U.S. allies, sending high level delegations to the United States and Australia, participation in major naval exercises, and sustained comprehensive engagement belie the claims that he is dumping the West for China. To date, Duterte has already visited six major non-NATO allies—Jordan, Israel, South Korea, Bahrain, Thailand, and Japan, with three of the six also being fellow U.S. treaty allies.
In a remarkable twist in his visit to Israel, the first ever by a Philippine president, he even apologized for insulting former U.S. president Barack Obama following U.S. comments on the Duterte administration’s human rights record ahead of a proposed sideline meeting. The apology came a few weeks after reports came out saying that the Balangiga bells—church bells taken by U.S. soldiers as trophies during a bloody episode of the Philippine-American War more than a century ago—were finally going to be returned to Samar province. Several efforts over past decades have been made to facilitate their repatriation, but their repeated failure has been a source of frustration in the bilateral relationship. Duterte demanded the return of the bells in his second State of the Nation address in 2017, and required their return before he would agree to talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Progress on this thorny issue bodes well for the trajectory of relationship.
Secondly, although Duterte has yet to set foot in the United States, he has already dispatched several high level delegations to meet with their American counterparts. In May 2018, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, then-Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, and Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea met with then-commander of U.S. Pacific Command Admiral Harry Harris Jr. in Hawaii. The next month, Cayetano and National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon flew to Washington to meet their counterparts, culminating in Esperon briefing President Trump on the situation in the Spratly Islands. Earlier in 2018, Cayetano represented Duterte at the special ASEAN-Australia Summit in Canberra, where he was joined by Trade and Industry Secretary Ramon Lopez and Chief Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo. Both security and economics were high on the agenda of these trips. Despite complaining about the Philippine military’s traditionally close ties to the U.S., he has also staffed his Cabinet with many retired generals.
Likewise, we have seen a change in Duterte’s attitude towards paying a state visit to the United States. Last year, in response to some U.S. lawmakers’ moves to block a potential Duterte visit to Washington, he said he would never visit “lousy America”. However, this year his tone has changed, Duterte saying that his visit to President Trump is “just a matter of scheduling.”
Third, despite early threats to upend security ties with the West, military-to-military relations with the United States and Australia have in fact reached new heights under Duterte’s watch. Though the Philippines had sent observers to the multilateral U.S.-organized Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises in the past, in 2018 the country sent a naval contingent for the first time. The Philippines sent two naval vessels and a 700-man strong force to RIMPAC this past summer, the largest international defense engagement that the Philippine Navy has taken part in. That the United States extended the invitation despite tensions signals an eagerness to bolster maritime cooperation on shared threats amidst trying times. Likewise, the Philippines dispatched a frigate and 300 personnel to the aforementioned Exercise Kakadu. It was the Philippine Navy’s third time joining Australia biannual multilateral naval exercise. Aside from maritime security exercises, counter-terrorism, disaster preparedness, and other non-traditional security concerns represent expanding areas of defense cooperation between the country and its long-time partners.
Given the longstanding ties with the United States and Australia, it is natural that some elements of the Philippine defense establishment harbor discomfort with the country’s increasing closeness with China and Russia. However, diversification of trade and security partners, including arms and energy suppliers, is integral to Duterte’s thrust for a proactive independent foreign policy, a constitutional dictum that enjoys broad-based support. Moving away from over-reliance on the United States, staying out of great power rivalries to mitigate chances of collateral damage, and expanding economic and security ties with other Asian partners are key features of this policy. This openness to all is reflected in the flurry of foreign goodwill naval and coast guard visits that the country has received in the two years since Duterte came into power, with American, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and Indian vessels coming to Philippine ports.
Furthermore, Duterte has demonstrated that he is not afraid to push back and call out great powers. He challenged the United States to more publicly demonstrate its commitment to alliances. He also criticized China for its excessive claims and threatening actions in the South China Sea. Under his leadership, the Philippines will continue to hedge its bets, careful not to count too much on U.S. treaty commitments, especially under a seemingly transactional and protectionist Trump administration. At the same time, while recognizing that maritime disputes are not the sum total of Philippines-China relations, incidents at sea and other worrisome developments will continue to be raised in established bilateral and regional dialogue channels. “Red lines” intimated to China will also be kept. Government efforts to accelerate infrastructure projects, in which China is a key partner, will continue to be guided by the lessons of other host states working with Chinese contractors.
As architect of his country’s foreign policy and commander-in-chief of its armed forces, Duterte should not allow his personal issues to drive policy. Though somewhat grudgingly, Duterte seems to realize this. Too much focus on rhetoric and optics may led some to think that Duterte is dumping the West to embrace China. However, the reality is far more nuanced.