Philippine-US relations seem to be normalising. After coming close to disintegrating in the closing months of Barack Obama’s term as US president, they’re steadily getting back on an even keel as both sides make efforts to establish what is effectively a new normal in the 70 years that have elapsed since America relinquished sovereignty over the archipelago.
What’s made this possible, first and foremost, is the absence of Obama. Were he still in the White House this relationship in practical terms would be virtually over by now – though no doubt the bickering would still be going on. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte would never have been able to work with his then US counterpart, who – despite paying lip service to Philippine issues; specifically those concerning defence – was primarily concerned with realising US goals in the East Asia region.
America’s influence over the Philippines has been a perennial bone of contention among many Filipinos. It came to a head last year when diplomatic relations all but broke down following Obama’s interference in Manila’s internal affairs as Obama insinuated himself into Duterte’s anti-drugs policy and became highly critical of it. The result was Duterte’s realignment of Philippine foreign policy in favour of China.
By contrast, under the previous Philippine administration of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, relations between the two countries were probably at an all-time high – though this can be largely explained by Aquino’s compliance with Washington’s wishes; among these, the 2014 signing of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement which gave US forces operational control of five military bases in the Philippines for an initial period of 10 years.
This was tied to implementing Obama’s flagship and desired legacy trade policy – the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), originally a 12-state trade bloc that had been seven years in the making. For the TPP to happen, the US needed to effect a physical pivot of East Asia. And for that to happen successfully it needed the Philippines on side; it needed to maintain and possibly even step up its military presence there. It needed to have enough military hardware – particularly naval – in the region to contain China. Indeed, restricting China’s growing economic might was one of the main purposes of the TPP.
Obama’s presidential replacement, Donald Trump, however, has no such aspirations for involving America in yet another trade grouping. There’s every chance he’ll be rewriting the terms for US involvement in the North American Free Trade Agreement (or, Nafta), a trilateral trade bloc with Canada and Mexico. Trump jettisoned US involvement in the TPP, withdrawing from it on 23 January shortly after coming to office. This has left the trade bloc’s future in grave doubt. Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has said that TPP without the US would be “meaningless”.
So with that out of the way, much of the air has been cleared. Détente has been achieved. The Philippines had never signed up for TPP membership anyway and while Aquino wanted to join – he announced his interest in 2010 at the beginning of his term – his successor had always viewed it as little more than trade colonialisation by the US. Of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations of which the Philippines is one, only Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam have joined.
Also, Duterte favours bilateral trade relations – allowing him to pick and choose his own markets, which is exactly what he’s been doing on his trips around the region. Bilateral trade is central to all discussions he and his administration have held with the leaders of China, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and every state in Southeast Asia. Likewise, it’s featured prominently during his visits to the Gulf States. And it will also be central during upcoming visits to Russia and very possibly Israel.
The other thing that’s considerably helped to re-track Philippine-US relations by melting the ice that had formed over them is the switch of US Ambassadors to the Philippines. Actually, this could be the biggest single reason for the thaw.
Since taking up his post last November, Sung Kim (photo) has quickly established a good rapport with Duterte, undoing much of the damage caused by his predecessor, Philip Goldberg whom Duterte had taken exception to during his presidential campaign, accusing him of exceeding his mission and getting involved in local politics and the national election.
On Monday, Korean-born Kim met with Duterte in the Presidential Guest House in Davao City where they discussed a number of issues including cooperation on counterterrorism and economic development in Mindanao, the large southern island region which is also Duterte’s home.
A statement made by Presidential Spokesperson, Ernesto Abella, after their meeting said that the two men “agreed that the Philippines and the US have mutual interests and shared values. Both stressed that these fruitful engagements and discussions are very important in ensuring that both states are on the same page”.
It continued: “The President said that Philippine-US relations at the bilateral level remain strong and there is readiness to discuss more matters of mutual interest with the US”. And added: “Sung Kim also assured [the president] that the US understands the security concerns of the Philippines and that the US is ready to provide more military equipment, assistance and training”.
This stands in stark contrast to the last time Duterte and Goldberg exchanged unpleasantries. Furthermore, in December, two months after vacating his post, Goldberg was implicated in an alleged plot to remove Duterte from power – ‘The Goldberg plan’ to oust Duterte. This plot which both Goldberg and the US State Department denied any knowledge of, also implicated Vice President and Duterte critic Leni Robredo as a Goldberg ally.
Significant though is the US readiness “to provide more military equipment, assistance and training”. Last November, the US State Department stopped the sale of 26,000 assault rifles to the Philippine National Police following human-rights concerns – again linked to Duterte’s drugs war – expressed by US Senator and Obama insider, Ben Cardin.
Since Trump’s been president, there has been no criticism from the White House of either Duterte or his anti-narcotics campaign. In fact far from it. In December, Duterte called Trump by phone to congratulate him on his victory. “He was quite sensitive to our war on drugs and he wishes me well in my campaign and said that we are doing, as he so put it, ‘the right way,’ ” Duterte said later.
Putting all that together, it would seem that Philippine-US relations are destined for calmer waters. The obstacle of the past have been removed and there is a far better appreciation in Washington of the Philippines’ desire to forge its own independent path. And while there are likely to be awkward moments over China still to come, they’re unlikely to reach the pitch they did in the last four years of the previous government in Manila.