Government News Analysis

Duterte-Trump – a futurescape

The big question is, what shape will Philippine-US relations take after Friday, when Donald Trump is inaugurated as America’s 45th president? Which way will the roller coaster go: up or down? It ascended under the coincidental leaderships of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino and Barack Obama; then plunged under Aquino’s successor, Rodrigo Duterte, in the closing months of the Obama administration as US foreign policy took on more water – significantly in East Asia, the region in which it was hoping to set up a more permanent home.

Here’s the clue, then. Aquino and Obama are both cut from the same liberal/left cloth; there was political synergy; they shared similar political ideals. They were birds of a political feather and they got on well together. Consequently, bilateral relations prospered. Duterte and Obama were like cheese and chalk; no shared political vision. They were birds of different species; they didn’t get on. Hence, bilateral relations came close to collapse.

The personal element will be a big factor in determining Manila-Washington ties going forward; Duterte-Trump relations clearly hold the key for much of what’s in store. And so it’s to the individual characters of these two men – more particularly, what they have in common – that we should look to view the prospects for the future.

Both are nationalists – Trump wants to “Make America Great Again”; Duterte believes in “Philippines First”. Both are dyed-in-the-wool pragmatists though neither will compromise his country’s economic or security interests. Duterte is resolved to pursue an independent foreign policy for the Philippines; Trump is determined to repair America’s international image and restore its standing in the world. And right there – where national interests could jar – is the one area that could create serious turbulence.

China and its adventures in the South China Sea – its military build-up on islands which last year the Permanent Court of Arbitration deemed to be Philippine sovereign soil – will be the most thistly issue confronting Philippine-US relations. A legacy problem from the Obama years, Trump will come under increasing pressure to push back against China – indeed he already is, as is his nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. They’re already feeling that pressure.

“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops. And second, [China’s] access to those islands also is not going to be allowed,” Tillerson told a US Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Trump has unveiled plans for a major overhaul of the US Navy’s fleet, promising the biggest naval shipbuilding programme – estimated to cost more than US$5 billion – since the end of the Cold War. That’s undoubtedly meant to send a signal to China (and Russia, the other country which Duterte is getting closer to).

If all this is followed through, it could virtually polarise Philippine-US relations. Duterte has moved his country close to China and a new bout of American assertiveness in his waters will be an extremely sensitive issue for him. Sino-Philippine relations are vital for his recalibrated foreign policy and rank with those of Japan, his country’s biggest economic-development partner.

We have little doubt that Duterte will jealously protect the newfound Manila-Beijing friendship. And if that means another crack in US-Philippine ties, then so be it. Duterte is Asia-centric; not global-looking. His neighbourhood – East Asia and Southeast Asia – is what matters to him, not where the Pacific Ocean laps up on the beaches of California, Oregon and Alaska. To avoid a schism of irreparable proportions, Trump will need to play the China card extremely carefully.

The Volatilian™ expects to be writing the headline ‘Duterte Goes to Washington’ very soon – we believe he will be among the first heads of state to visit the Trump White House. We’re also pretty sure that China’s presence in the South China Sea will be high on Trump’s agenda – one reason in fact for an early get together.

But another issue they will need to tackle is the two bases agreements which give US military personnel access to facilities on Philippine turf. As far as Duterte and whole sections of Filipino society are concerned these have long been a bone of contention. The last of these – the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (a 2014 Obama-Aquino offering) – Duterte put under review in October, questioning its legitimacy.  He’s also called for an end to joint military exercises between the two countries’ armed forces.

If China wasn’t an issue, the two men would see eye to eye over the bases and the war games. Trump has said he’s not prepared to station US troops overseas and expect American taxpayers to foot the bill. The Philippines, therefore – in the absence of the China nettle – would be one place he could quickly cut back. That would please Duterte and would further cement ties.

The incoming US president has already promised to jettison the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the US-led trade bloc that seeks to dominate commerce throughout Duterte’s region and which would command 40% of world trade. That will be good news for China which is in the process of getting its own answer to TPP off the ground – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a commerce leviathan with a population of 3.4 billion people in its reach with a combined GDP of US$21.4 trillion. As a member state of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Philippines – which never signed up to the TPP – is a constituent part of this.

Again though, what will help in reaching some kind of accommodation over China will be the qualities and characteristics which these two men share. And they’re quite striking. Each has a healthy disregard for political correctness, seeing it for the political weapon and the debilitating force it is. Consequently, they are both outspoken and have a palpable loathing for the media, regarding them – rightly in our opinion – as corrupt, self-serving propagandists.

In the US, as in the Philippines now, the media is likely to be increasingly sidelined. Trump and Duterte share a preference for communicating directly to their people – through personal engagement at rallies and events, via their own broadcasting infrastructures, or though social media which built and supported much of their respective election campaigns.

At times, neither says what he means nor means what he says. This will continue to confuse many commentators who tend to take all language as literal, particularly from heads of government – at least when it suits them. Both Duterte and Trump are adept at throwing the press off the scent. For these men, the mainstream media have no role as the people’s watchdog; rather they see them as the lapdog of the political elites. The last place to find out what’s going on in the minds of Duterte and Trump is in the coloured, spun offerings of the mass media. They seem to be the last to work it out.

Both men speak for the disenfranchised; those blocks of society that have been sidelined by economic progress – that’s what brought them both to power; made them both presidents. This shared affinity will keep their personal relationship in good stead and help them negotiate sensitive areas of potential conflict.

Furthermore, neither are politicians in the regular sense. They’re both – as they’ve been rightly tagged – “outsiders”; anti-establishment. And they rejoice in that, as too do their followers. So there’s another clue. Neither man is an appeaser and political considerations will be regularly relegated by pragmatism. This will certainly ease their working together.

They also share the same dislike for the politics of the progressive elites which they each replace – in the case of Trump, the Obama/Clinton-controlled Democratic Party; in the case of Duterte, the Robredo/Roxas Liberal Party – two parties, incidentally that bitterly reject their new heads of state and plot continually to depose them; two parties which they each believe are largely responsible for the woeful state of their countries. This, in a sense their common enemy, will further reinforce the comradeship of these two leaders.

More often than not they will row against the tide. The likes of civil rights and climate change – now bulwarks of establishment politics; in policymaking often spearheading it – will take a back seat under both administrations. The green these men are primarily interested in is the colour of money; trade revenue and investment.

Energy too provides common ground. The Philippines is dependent on coal to sustain its fragile power grid. Duterte has a huge plan to industrialise so he’s not going to be cutting back on coal that’s for sure. Trump’s also a fan of coal and he will endeavour to revitalise that mining industry, so he certainly won’t be drawing attention to the Philippines’ carbon footprint. Trump also wants to expand US oil and natural-gas production. So, back to the South China Sea – the Philippines bit of that – who knows, there could be an opening for American oil companies there. We wouldn’t put that offer past Trump; though again, Duterte is likely to give China the first bite.

Most important though is that the two areas which above all others will drive these administrations are the economy stupid! and the society stupid! Both the Philippines and the US are gripped by large economic and social problems which they’ve pledged to solve – ergo Duterte’s and Trump’s presidential victories; ergo their prime commitment to these throughout their terms of office. There’s unlikely to be any criticism of the Philippines’ War on Drugs coming from the new resident of the White House as there was from Obama. Unlike his predecessor, Trump is not about meddling in the internal affairs of other countries. This will sit well with Duterte.

Both men, too, have a marked disregard for their countries’ respective seats of government. Duterte refers to his as “Imperial Manila,” a condemnation of a Spanish and later American colonial legacy that de-elevated the interests of the rest of the country. Trump refers to Washington DC as “The Swamp,” a fetid bog of corruption and privilege where lobbyists and the progressive fringe hold sway over government policies.

Duterte’s answer is to federalise his country; create a system of self-governing, autonomous regions that will make them masters of their own destiny, allowing them to use their taxes in their provinces rather than receive the crumbs of what’s left after Manila’s taken its share. For his part, Trump will decentralise, releasing Washington’s grip and increasingly pass more power to the states.

The other major impact which a Trump presidency could have on the Philippines is in its handling of offshore US companies. Trump wants US dollar bills – wherever they are – back working in the US, and he’ll look to repatriate them; and probably quickly. Specifically, in the Philippine context, this could affect the country’s booming business process outsourcing (BPO) – a US$22-bilion-a-year industry into which American firms kick around 75%.

The Philippine BPO sector currently employs around 1.3 million workers and it’s been growing fast. Loss of this would be a big hit for the Philippines and so Duterte will be seeking guarantees from Trump for special dispensation. But Trump is first and foremost a deal maker so if he does that he’ll definitely want something in return.

At a personal level, then, these men are likely to get on well together. They certainly have far more in common than they do in difference. In effect, they’re fellow travellers with a matched love of their countries. In all this there’s scope for greater harmony between the US and the Philippines, but, as we’ve seen, there’s also potential for antagonism – certainly difficulties.

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