In recent weeks, US-Philippines relations have — to put it mildly — undergone a rough patch as the new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has sought to “rebalance” Philippine foreign policy and lessen its dependence on the US. The reaction of Asia policy makers and analysts in the US has ranged from anger to handwringing to ignoring, denying, or downplaying the significance and roots of the problem.
For the US, the Philippines is the main hinge of its diplomatic and military pivot towards Asia. But Duterte says he intends to loosen ties with the US and lead his country towards a more “independent” foreign policy. In particular, Duterte wants to forge closer relations with China and Russia. He has suspended military exercises with the US in the South China Sea because “China is against it” and has said that US troops in the southern Philippines should leave. Duterte has also said that the 2014 US-Philippines Extended Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) which allows the US to rotate troops and equipment through the Philippines and use some of its bases is an executive agreement that can be revoked, implying that it may be reevaluated. However, he has also said that he “would not abrogate the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the US that provides a security umbrella for the Philippines.”
As for US military aid, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that “we can live without it.” He also indicated that the US had refused to sell certain weapons to the country and that Russia and China could supply them instead. Duterte added that “America would never die for us” — a reference to US vagueness on whether or not it would come to the aid of the Philippine military in a conflict in the Spratlys or Scarborough Shoal. Presumably to Washington’s chagrin, Duterte also stated that “China is now in power and they have military superiority in the region.”
These statements have generated a variety of responses from US policy makers and senior analysts. Former PACOM and now head of Sasakawa USA Dennis Blair opined that “to the great majority of Philippine officers, defense officials and ordinary citizens, it makes no sense to replace the alliance with the United States and the American security relationships with a closer security relationship with China and Russia.” In an October 11 speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Daniel Russel ignored the problem and instead touted a proposed US-led “inclusive and dynamic security network” as part of a “4.0 Asia-Pacific Operating System.” He claimed that “the network is rooted in common interests and respect for shared principles…”
Russel also said at a defense writers breakfast that “there’s lots of noise, a lot of stray voltage coming from Manila. We’ve been through a lot worse in our 70-year history.” As Russel put it, “There’s a difference between talking about these things and doing them.” He added that the benefits the Philippines got from US assistance and protection under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and the strong public support in that country for America “make it improbable any Philippine leader would distance himself from the United States.”
Addressing Duterte’s indication that the EDCA may be reevaluated, Pentagon spokesperson Gary Ross said that the EDCA is an international agreement and that both the US and the Philippines are bound by it.
Not only do these policy makers and pundits apparently just not “get it” — the underlying cause and depth of Duterte’s angst — but they and those who hold similar views share a wilful self-delusion or ignorance regarding the prevalent view of the US by much of Asia’s masses. Indeed, they have failed to discern the roots of the problem — American cultural hubris and heavy handedness.
The Duterte phenomenon is a lesson that should infuse and inform US foreign policy in Asia and elsewhere.
First of all, the legacy of American colonialism is still very much alive in the Philippines. It manifests itself in the Constitutional recognition of English as an official language and in the education system, as well as in the US diplomatic approach and US military and “tourist” treatment of Filipinos and especially Filipinas. Indeed, there is a deep well of resentment that has built up over decades of foreigners taking for granted and advantage of Filipino warmth and tolerance.
But the worm may be turning. After one of Duterte’s outbursts, Philippine Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay Jr. eloquently explained that “the United States held on to invisible chains that reined us in towards dependence and submission as little brown brothers not capable of true independence and freedom.” This is a major indictment coming from the Foreign Minister. Indeed, many Filipinos have a love-hate relationship with America and Americans that can no longer be ignored. Deep down, the peoples the US has conquered, bullied, or treated condescendingly all these years are starting to demand equal rights and treatment in interstate and intercultural relations. Therein lies the problem and the remedy — deep cross-cultural understanding, equal respect and treatment, transparency, and honesty. But these principles do not seem to be in general practice in US diplomacy. In this sense, the Duterte phenomenon is a lesson that should infuse and inform US foreign policy in Asia and elsewhere.
Duterte’s personal attitude towards America was apparently influenced by an experience with the US government when he was the mayor of Davao. In May 2002, there was an explosion in the Evergreen Hotel in Davao and an American, Michael Meiring, was charged with possession of explosives. But soon after, Meiring was spirited out of the country — apparently with the connivance of the US Embassy. Duterte was embarrassed and angry. He deeply resented the arrogance and deceit of the American government in facilitating Meiring’s avoidance of Philippine justice. In 2013, Duterte blocked an American request to base drones at Davao’s old airport. According to the New York Times, Kurt Hoyer, a spokesperson for the US Embassy, said, “It would have no comment on the drone proposal, the Meiring affair, or how the episode might affect relations with the incoming President.” That seems to be par for the US State Department — ignore it and hopefully it will go away. But this time it did not. Current US decision makers, advisers, and analysts knew or should have known about this incident. But they apparently chose to ignore it. Making matters worse, the outgoing US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg angered Duterte by criticizing his making light of a rape case and his support of alleged extrajudicial murders of drug dealers and addicts. Duterte snapped that Goldberg could “go ahead and sever it [ties with the US].”
Let’s look at the world from the Philippines’ perspective. It is unsure if America will back it up in a conflict with China and realizes that it will have to live with and get along with China in perpetuity. Moreover, its leadership is genuinely tired of being condescended to and lectured to by the US, particularly on domestic policy. In such circumstances, it is understandable if the Philippines wants to promote a more independent foreign policy and rebalance its military relationships. After all, Duterte may have some method in his US -perceived “madness.” He may be trying to get an unequivocal commitment of US military backup in the event of a China attack on Philippine forces. Or he may be trying to negotiate a modus vivendi with the most powerful geographically permanent nation in Asia. Facilitating implementation of US military strategy against China may not be viewed as helpful in this endeavor. Or maybe he really is about making the Philippines’ foreign policy more “independent.” Whatever his reasons, he is, as he puts it, the democratically elected “President of a sovereign state and we have long ceased to be a colony.” Moreover, he is still hugely popular at home.
US policy makers and analysts may not like his style nor his alleged extrajudicial methods in dealing with domestic problems. But the US has dealt with — even supported — far worse characters, like one of his predecessors. And it still does — in the region and beyond. The US needs to get over it and face and deal with reality, not what it would like the situation to be. More generally, the US also needs to reassess its policy in Asia rather than simply doubling down and imposing its preferences.