In recent months, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly threatened separation from the Philippines’ only strategic ally, the United States. U.S.-Philippine joint patrols in the South China Sea and joint military training exercises have both been threatened with termination as Duterte brings the Philippines’ foreign policy into line with his vision of “independence.” He has also threatened to review and possibly abrogate the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which provides U.S. forces access to five Philippine military bases.
Security analysts have questioned whether U.S.-Philippine defense cooperation can survive six years of a Philippine president seemingly driven by anti-Western ideology. Those fears should be somewhat allayed, as Duterte has walked back some of his earlier pronouncements and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has declared that the Philippine-U.S. security alliance will not be abrogated and that the EDCA will stay in place.
Shortly after his June 30 inauguration, it still seemed possible that Duterte would follow his predecessor Benigno Aquino’s geopolitical agenda challenging Beijing in the South China Sea. But after the United States raised concerns with his so-called war on drugs and criminality, which has so far claimed more than 5,000 lives in just five months, Duterte switched gears. His subsequent threats to distance the Philippines from its formal treaty ally seem closely linked to his reactions to Washington’s growing criticism of alleged human rights violations. His approach to the United States’ primary geostrategic competitors—China and Russia—can also be seen as a direct response to his anger at Washington.
On September 12, Duterte announced that U.S. Special Forces operating in Mindanao must leave the country, arguing that there could be no peace in the restive southern Philippines as long as U.S. troops were there. The following day, he declared that the Philippine Navy would stop joint patrols with the U.S. Navy in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea in order to avoid upsetting China. During a visit to Vietnam later that month, Duterte promised that the U.S.-Philippine Amphibious Landing Exercise (PHIBLEX) held on October 4-12, would be the last military exercise between the two allies during his six-year term. And in early October, Duterte indicated that he might review the EDCA’s legality, although the Philippine Supreme Court in January declared it constitutional.
As he began shifting away from the United States, Duterte announced that he would forge “new alliances” with China and Russia to counter the effects of his separation from the United States. During his October 21 state visit to Beijing, Duterte declared a “separation” from the United States and a realignment in favor of China, accompanied by an agreement to resolve their disputes in the South China Sea bilaterally. Duterte’s declaration was seen as a great diplomatic victory for China that would have “a radiating effect in the region that would bring other estranged neighbors closer to China’s orbit.”
After returning to Manila, however, Duterte announced that he would not sever his country’s alliance with the United States after all, and clarified that his “separation” merely meant charting another path in foreign policy. The ensuing confusion over this back-and-forth led to the postponement of the annual Mutual Defense Board meeting between the U.S. and Philippine defense departments, as Lorenzana and the Philippine Department of National Defense (DND) requested an opportunity to lobby Duterte over the continuing need for joint exercises.
The ensuing November 8 cabinet meeting was successful in that regard, as Duterte decided to retain the alliance and to implement the EDCA. However, according to Lorenzana, joint military trainings would be scaled down to small-unit exercises focusing on special forces, counter-terrorism, and counter-narcotics operations. He also announced that the annual Balikatan exercises involving thousands of American and Filipino troops would continue, but would be refocused from warfighting scenarios to humanitarian, engineering, and civil activities. The annual Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training and PHIBLEX exercises between the two nations’ navies and marines, respectively, would be terminated. Lorenzana said that Duterte had agreed to “practically all” of the DND’s recommendations, with the exception of those that would involve landing exercises.
This is not the first time that Duterte has changed his mind after consultation with the military. Upon assuming office on June 30, Duterte declared that he would not continue the Aquino administration’s modernization program for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). His plan to do away with the modernization program drew rumblings from the AFP because it prioritized internal security over external defense. Sensitive to military discontent, Duterte decided to honor several defense plans and contracts in the pipeline from the previous administration. These included a contract with Japan for the lease of five TC-90 maritime surveillance planes for the Philippine Navy, a contract with Hyundai Heavy Industries for the construction and delivery to the navy of two missile-equipped frigates, and a third Hamilton-class cutter from the United States under the Excess Defense Articles program.
Duterte’s change of heart on the termination of joint military exercises and the possible abrogation of EDCA show that his anti-American streak is not insurmountable. The move toward China seems to stem from a kind of flexible pragmatism rather than strict ideological conviction. His initial burst of anti-American rhetoric, a knee-jerk reaction to the Obama administration’s criticism, attracted China’s attention. Sensing a gap between the allies, China offered Duterte diplomatic support and economic concessions to translate his rhetoric into policy, including cancelation of joint U.S.-Philippine military exercises and naval patrols in the South China Sea. Duterte, seeing a tangible benefit for the Philippines, was happy to comply.
This episode also showed that anti-Americanism in the Duterte administration is strongest at the top level but does not permeate the bureaucracy—especially the DND and the AFP. The military and defense officials were able to reason with Duterte, providing him a compromise in the form of shifting the focus of joint exercises from territorial defense to counter-terrorism and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief. They were able to successfully retain the hard-won EDCA. With cooperation at the lower levels and the agreement still in place, U.S. Pacific Command and the Pentagon have an opportunity to keep the alliance operational despite Duterte’s fiery denouncements. Although the compromise will mean a return to the lower levels of cooperation seen under the administration of Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, they will ensure the survival of the U.S.-Philippine alliance.