Written by Pauline Eadie.
Since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte took office in June 2016 more than 7,000 people have been killed in the course of his so called ‘war on drugs’. This has led to Human Rights Watch labeling the killings as crimes against humanity. The United States announced in December 2016 that Millennium Challenge Corporation funding would be withheld from the Philippines as a result of ‘significant concerns around rule of law and civil liberties’. Duterte’s response was to state ‘bye bye America’ with reference to the cancellation of the long running US/Philippine Visiting Forces Agreement.
Duterte has moderated his tone towards the United States since President Trump took office in January (a previous low point was reached when Duterte called President Obama a son of a whore), with Duterte claiming that Trump supports his war on drugs. Nevertheless questions remain over the impact of a Trump presidency on US/PH trade agreements, documented and undocumented overseas foreign workers (OFWs), climate change agreements and the situation in the South China/West Philippine Sea. It is widely expected that President Trump will slash the US foreign aid budget this month in order to boost domestic spending in line with his rhetoric of ‘America first’. In 2016 the Philippines received $76.9 million and was 14th on the list of aid recipients making it the highest ranked country in South East Asia.
The Philippines came under American tutelage after the Spanish American War in 1898. Even after Philippine independence in 1946 the US maintained significant influence over Philippines affairs via the Bell Trade Act and numerous agreements that regulated US/PH military relations. These include the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and more recently the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). The US has also fostered cultural diplomacy through education schemes such as those run by The Fulbright Commission. In 2011 the US and the Philippines agreed a new Partnership for Growth to assist economic development in the Philippines. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of super-typhoon Yolanda the US delivered nearly $150 million in humanitarian aid to the archipelago.
Over time the US has sought to both coerce and attract the Philippines in a bid to maintain a friendly ally in South East Asia. Geographically the Philippines is a crucial gateway to mainland South East Asia, the South China Sea and the Western Pacific. Significantly the Philippines is within ‘the dragon’s lair’ as evidenced by China’s contested nine-dash line in the South China Sea.
The United States has a good relationship with the Philippines, especially when compared to other strategically important countries, such as frontline Muslim states embroiled in the ‘war on terror’. In 2015 the Pew Research Institute reported that 92% of Filipinos surveyed had a favourable opinion of the US. Other survey years indicate a similarly high ranking. As a point of comparison 83% of Jordanians had an unfavourable view of the United States despite receiving $393 million in aid in 2016. This is a significant amount given that the total population of Jordan is only 7.59 million.
On balance it can be argued that the US has been relatively ‘smart’ in its relations with the Philippines. Armitage and Nye argue that smart power rests on three principles; that America’s standing in the world matters to security and prosperity, today’s challenges can only be addressed with capable and willing allies, and that civilian tools can enhance the legitimacy and effectiveness of US government policies. Smart power is a natural successor to Joseph Nye’s soft power, which he defines as the ability ‘to shape the preferences of others’ using the power of attraction rather than threats or force.
However, in reality ‘the preferences of others’ may have been only superficially changed in the Philippines, meaning that Philippine allegiance to the US is vulnerable to entreaties from elsewhere (China) and the personal preferences of individual leaders. This has become apparent since the election of President Duterte who has openly courted economic support from both Japan and China since his election. Duterte’s strategy is risky as he has also chosen not to press an international tribunal ruling in The Hague that decreed China has no legitimate claim to disputed territory in the South China Sea. If China consolidates its hold over contested assets in the South China Sea Duterte risks losing support at home, not least from his military who have spent years defending the region from Chinese incursion.
Meanwhile early indications suggest Trump’s Asia policy will be more hard than smart and that the US will resist Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea. Ironically this means that the US is set to defend Philippine rights in the South China Sea whilst the Philippines aligns with the Chinese enemy. If the Trump administration wants to maintain the Philippines as a capable and willing ally Trump might need to get ‘smart’ and more effectively charm Duterte. Whether he would entertain such an approach remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Duterte should be careful that crafting an independent foreign policy does not leave him in the dragon’s lair with no hope of rescue.
Pauline Eadie is an Assistant Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. Her most recent edited book is The Evolution of Military Power in the West and Asia: Security Policy in the Post-Cold War Era (Routledge with Wyn Rees). She is currently primary investigator for a three year ESRC/DFID ‘Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research’ funded project entitled ‘Poverty Alleviation in the Wake of Typhoon Yolanda’. This project is run jointly with colleagues at The University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China and The University of the Philippines, Diliman. She tweets at @EadiePauline. This article forms part of the IAPS Dialogue series on America in the ‘Asian Century’, a symposium joint-funded by the Department of American & Canadian Studies, and the Institute of Asia & Pacific Studies at the University of Nottingham. Image Credit: CC/ Wikimedia Commons