Despite months of anti-American rhetoric and threats from Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte to undermine the alliance, cooperation between the United States and the Philippines remains surprisingly strong. The defense relationship has borne the brunt of the fallout, which so far has been limited to a reduction in military exercises.
Given the extent of Duterte’s threats, this should be seen as a victory for the patient approach of the outgoing Obama administration. Key agreements and relationships remain in place for an alliance reset under the incoming Donald Trump administration, but there are reasons to be skeptical about whether the relationship can be put back on an upward trajectory.
The reported downgrade in the defense relationship is restrained in comparison with Duterte’s threats to “separate” from the U.S. alliance, end joint exercises, and remove U.S. troops from the Philippines. The cancellation of Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) and the Philippines Amphibious Landing Exercise (PHIBLEX) is a blow to efforts to build capacity in the Philippine Navy and Marine Corps.
However, the preservation of the flagship Exercise Balikatan—even in a scaled-back form—will allow continued contact and cooperation between the U.S. Pacific Command, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and multilateral partners like the Australian military. Key U.S.-Philippine defense agreements like the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement and the Mutual Defense Treaty remain intact. Rotational U.S. deployments to the Philippines, such as the counterterrorism support mission in the southern Philippines, seem unaffected. Things could easily have been much worse, and the decision to reduce the joint exercise schedule can be revisited in the future.
Duterte’s outreach to China is also not a blow to U.S. strategy in Asia, as it is often depicted. While Duterte seems too willing to undermine the Philippines’ key U.S. alliance and ignore his country’s legal victory on the South China Sea at The Hague in exchange for promises of future Chinese cooperation and investment, it is ultimately good for all parties if Manila and Beijing can agree to manage contentious issues such as the Scarborough Shoal peacefully and constructively. The U.S.-Philippine relationship is robust enough to weather some short-term disruption as Duterte attempts to chart a more “independent” foreign policy.
If Duterte’s attacks on the alliance have been part of a plan to create diplomatic space for his rapprochement with China, one might expect a follow-on effort to repair the damage after the next U.S. administration takes office. Indeed, there have been hopeful noises from Manila regarding a reset of relations with President-elect Trump. Duterte spoke well of Trump following the U.S. election, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay suggested that Duterte and Trump are temperamentally suited to work together, and Trump’s Manila business partner, Jose E. B. Antonio, has been named the Philippines’ special trade envoy to Washington. These signals are promising and hopefully will be followed by a concerted effort to improve ties, but there are reasons to believe that the downward trend in relations could continue after Trump takes office.
It will likely prove difficult for Duterte to back away from the fiery anti-American rhetoric that has been a hallmark of his administration. While his actions can be explained in part by diplomatic calculation, they also seem driven by his hostility to criticism and a personal animus toward the United States. At the very least, Duterte likely will continue to lash out at U.S. critics of his drug war and the extrajudicial killings used to prosecute it. The Obama administration’s bemused resignation to Duterte’s attacks on America is unlikely to continue under the next administration, and Trump may be inclined to fire back at any insults from Duterte. Similar temperaments may not be a recipe for harmony in this relationship.
Criticism in Washington of Duterte and his drug war will continue, even if he and Trump manage to get along. Duterte may believe that the inauguration of Trump—who “has not meddled in human rights,” according to the Philippine president—will remove extrajudicial killings as a point of contention in the relationship, but that is not how the U.S. system works. Congress is a coequal branch of government and controls the power of the purse, making congressional support vital for the continuation of U.S. aid and capacity-building programs in the Philippines.
The State Department’s recent halt of a U.S. rifle sale to the Philippine National Police in response to congressional opposition is unlikely to be an isolated incident if the Philippine drug war continues. Further damage to the defense relationship is still possible if the Philippine military gets involved in the drug war or overall perceptions of the Philippines in Washington decline, jeopardizing future funding for Foreign Military Financing, the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative, and military construction projects in the Philippines.
While the onus will remain on Duterte to moderate his behavior and policies to preserve good relations, he may also have to adapt to deal with a more demanding partner. It is still too early to predict what Trump’s foreign policy will look like, but it seems plausible that the president-elect’s skepticism about alliances was not just campaign rhetoric. Duterte so far has undertaken his diplomatic maneuvering and attacks on the alliance while dealing with an administration that values the U.S. alliance system and is predisposed to reassure even troublesome allies.
What will Trump, who questioned the contributions of firm Asian allies like Japan and South Korea, make of the Philippines? Duterte, if he does not seriously desire an end to the alliance, may soon find himself in the unfamiliar position of having to defend the value of the alliance to the United States rather than the other way around.
While concerns about the future of the U.S.-Philippines alliance remain warranted, there is no need for undue pessimism. The relationship has weathered Duterte surprisingly well so far. Perhaps relations under Trump will surprise us as well.
(This Commentary originally appeared in the December 1, 2016, issue of Southeast Asia from Scott Circle.)