Government News Analysis

Foreign relations – a rebalancing act

Philippine-US relations are likely to undergo realignment under the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte with pragmatism becoming the overriding foreign-policy strategy used to resolve inflamed regional geo-political issues.

That will predicate a reassessment of Manila’s present relationship with both Washington and Beijing – something that is likely already underway. And the chances are that it will become more distant from the former and increasingly closer to the latter.

While Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino, favoured ever-closer ties with the United States, galvanising the “Special Relationship” by the signing in April 2014 of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), Duterte will be looking north to China to reach a mutually acceptable arrangement to solve the pressing South China Sea impasse – Tricky affairs in the neighbourhood – and embrace trade, investment and technology-transfer opportunities while fostering economic cooperation with the Mainland.

Aquino’s acceptance of US President Barack Obama’s offer to provide the Philippines with marine security by reactivating the naval base – which has amounted to little more than US posturing – is seen by Duterte as a move that was destined to inflame Beijing and make the regional situation worse while delivering little more than rhetoric to Aquino’s hard line on China.

The EDCA, which allows the US to build and operate military facilities on Philippine bases – eight so far – for 10 years, is particularly troublesome, not just with the regards to Manila’s dealings with China, but with large sectors of the Filipino population which views it as a nod back to American colonialism with its diet of tales about American sailors’ exploits in the sex dens of Subic, Olongapo and Angeles City.

Earlier this year, two advanced nuclear-powered stealth submarines visited Subic; last year more than 100 US Navy ships tied up there.

But even more concerning, is the threat it poses from extreme Islamist groups in the south of the country. There is a very strong argument for suggesting that an American naval presence in Subic Bay – home of the US Navy until 1992 when it was virtually told by the Philippine Senate to pack up and leave – could seriously inflame tensions and spread acts of insurgency from Mindanao, where for the most part they are contained, to the northern island of Luzon.

Duterte is keen to calm tensions in the south and deal with outlaw groups like Abu Sayyaf. What he doesn’t want is a target painted on the north of the country that could see terrorist violence straddling the archipelago. Terror threat to tour and travel trade

If Republican candidate, Donald Trump, becomes the next US president, however, there is every likelihood that bi-lateral relations between the US and the Philippines might actually remain close – though on a very different standing to the present one.

Trump, like Duterte, is a nationalist and has been vocally critical of his country’s role as the world’s policeman. Having US warships patrolling around Chinese waters is unlikely to be a priority under a Trump administration – particularly when he also wants to open a new dialogue with the Mainland. Like Duterte also, he puts his country’s economic welfare above that of promoting its global military importance – in other words, trade deals would be the first order of the day rather than security deals. In this scenario, the chances for sound tri-lateral relations would be boosted.