Government News Analysis

Signs of friendship

It took just seven minutes to get US-Philippine relations back on track; a brief chat between two popularly elected leaders and all the bickering of the past several months which had threatened an ugly divorce between these two historically close nations was swept away. And the signs are that future ties between Washington and Manila will be stronger than ever.

So, the heart wrenching and scaremongering from the Philippine Liberal Establishment, that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had burned his bridges where the US was concerned, have been proved false. What those seven minutes show is that Duterte and US President-elect, Donald Trump, are in sync.

No surprise to the Volatilian™ – A meeting of minds – this is what we expected from two unapologetic pragmatists. During the call, Trump invited Duterte to meet in Washington and New York and expressed interest in attending next year’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit which the Philippines is hosting.

The Liberal narrative, that Duterte was destroying his country’s “special relationship” with the US, however, was put out as misinformation to call into question Duterte’s ability to determine a sensible Philippine foreign policy – and, of course, to stir up anti-Duterte feeling in a country that feels culturally close to the US. That now all looks rather silly. And in the meantime, of course, Manila has also forged strong links with Beijing.

But this was never a row with the US. To put the lie to that narrative, Duterte has no issue with the people of America nor Americans living in the Philippines nor American companies doing business there. His issue was specifically with US President Barack Obama and the progressive elite in Washington. As the head of a sovereign state, he was not prepared to have his country’s independence emasculated by the overbearing interference of US policymakers whose real interests lay in the geopolitics of East Asia and by the American Left as the self-appointed global arbiter on human rights.

To recap briefly, tension in the US-Philippine relationship was sparked when Obama openly criticised Duterte’s war on drugs in which he referenced extrajudicial killings – the implication being that Duterte was inspiring vigilante executions. Leaving aside the fact that there was and never has been any proof for that allegation, those comments were a direct assault on the internal affairs of a country by the head of state of another. But what it also highlighted was the open secret that Washington – ever since 1946 when the US granted the Philippines ‘independence’ – has virtually taken for granted that it pulls the strings where the Filipino nation is concerned.

That notion is now a thing of the past and once Trump is in the White House, Duterte will be left to lead his country the best way he sees fit and deal with his country’s internal problems unhindered and certainly without requiring Washington’s approval first. Trump is understood to want to start a clean slate with the Philippines. A member of his transition team is reported to have said that the US President-elect is “perfectly capable of talking to Duterte in an open way without being wedded to previous policy failures”.

That’s a good start and certainly as far as dialogue with Duterte is concerned, Obama will be a very easy act to follow.  Of that short telephone conversation, Duterte explained that Trump was “quite sensitive [regarding] our worry about drugs … He wishes me well in my campaign [saying that] we are doing it as a sovereign nation … [and] the right way”.

Elaborating, he added: “He understood the way we are handling it and I said that there’s nothing wrong in protecting the country. [The conversation] was very encouraging in the sense that I supposed what he really wanted to say is that [the US] would be the last to interfere in the affairs of your country”.

But, while the White House won’t be looking over Duterte’s shoulder, it will not stop Democrat members of the US Congress from poking their noses into Filipino affairs – though the chances are they will be devoting most of their time and energy to criticising Trump.

In the Philippines, meanwhile, this entente cordiale between Malacañang Palace and the future White House will hopefully quash the manufactured scare stories of American investors leaving the Philippines in their droves. US aid to the Philippines will be reviewed under Trump as it will be for any other country. But that has nothing to do with Duterte. This will be part of a global reassessment of the cash which America splashes around each year – something which Trump wants to rein-in.

Military arrangements between the two countries will also be reviewed: Trump is not keen on keeping US troops abroad at the expense of the American taxpayer, while Duterte is uncomfortable with having American military uniforms on Philippine soil.

All in all, then, this is a relationship that can work to the mutual benefit of both countries. And in fact all that’s really changed is that Washington now has a new found respect for the country it bought from Spain for US$20 million 118 years ago. A truly independent Philippines, one without the shackles of the past – shackles that have been passively gifted to the US by successive residents of Malacañang – has been one of Duterte’s most determined ambitions. It seems he may have achieved it.

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