The Volatilian™ View

Wrong turn of phrase

Philippines-US Relations
Philippines-US Relations

There’s a suggestion from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s detractors – locally and overseas – that he’s done some sort of U-turn over his dealings with the United States. Last year he told Washington to take a hike; now he’s receiving shipments of arms from America; US military advisors are on the ground in on the southern island of Mindanao where the government’s locked in a war with Islamic State-linked militants. There’s even talk of a bilateral free-trade agreement between the two countries.

Last month, the Philippine Marine Corps received 300 M4 carbines, 200 Glock 21 pistols, four M134D Gatling-style machine guns and 100 M203 grenade launchers from the US. Much of this will be used against Islamic terrorists holed-up in Marawi City in the predominantly Muslim province of Lanao del Sur in the west of Mindanao. It’s there, too, that US military advisers and special forces are providing “technical assistance” to the Philippine Army.

Last week, in an entirely separate development, Department of Trade and Industry Undersecretary, Ceferino Rodolfo, met with Assistant US Trade Representative, Barbara Weisel, to discuss enhancing Philippine-US trade relations – by possibly striking a bilateral free-trade agreement. The two sides are now studying the proposal. A statement issued by the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) said both parties have agreed to collaborate to “foster free, fair, and balanced trade between them”.

Meanwhile, at the end of June, an application made by the Philippines to exempt Filipino-made travel goods – suitcases, bags, wallets; things like that – from US import tariffs was granted by the USTR under the US Generalized System of Preferences scheme. Some 70% of Philippine goods now enter the US market duty free.

All this, apparently, is very confusing to those who would like to see the back of Duterte. But that’s because they’ve never actually understood – or that they refuse to admit – the true nature of Duterte’s problems with the US.

The fact is none of these events marks a U-turn in Duterte’s Philippine policy.

Let’s try and put this simply: Duterte doesn’t have any problem with the US; he had a problem with its former leader, Barack Obama, for his persistent interference in Philippine affairs. He also had a problem with Obama’s colonial-style arrogance – his treatment of the Philippines as if it was a vassal state of Uncle Sam.

He also had a problem with the Obama administration’s State Department and with the former US ambassador to the Philippine, Philip Goldberg – again for interfering in the Philippines’ internal affairs. In Goldberg’s case for insinuating himself, as a guest of the country, into the Philippines national elections in 2016 – something Obama’s Democratic Party finds despicable if it’s on the receiving end.

Duterte never had an American problem; like a number of countries around the world he had an Obama problem.
What Duterte was letting Obama know – perhaps not too subtly – was that policies for the administration of the Philippines emanate from Malacañang, the presidential palace in Manila (photo), not from the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC.

But none of that means that he had or has a problem with the American nation. Indeed, since Obama’s vacated the White House, Philippine-US relations are back on an even keel. All the indications are that the new occupant of the White House, US President Donald Trump, and Duterte see eye to eye on many issues. But then Trump, unlike his predecessor, is not demanding fealty from Duterte – and he’s very unlikely to be usurping the sovereignty of the Philippines, as his predecessor did.

So it’s really as simple as that. Duterte never had an American problem; like a number of countries around the world – from Israel to Russia to China to Venezuela – he had an Obama problem. In effect, none of those countries could work with the US while Obama was in charge; oddly though, since he’s gone, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping – like Duterte – have noticeably improved relations with the US.

None of them made U-turns either? What they did – again like Duterte – was to re-evaluate where their countries stood in relation to the US in the post-Obama era.

Of course it suited the pro-Obama narrative to depict Duterte as anti-American. Duterte’s opponents, at home and abroad, believed they could play into and exploit the pro-American feelings of the Filipino people who rate Americans even higher than Americans do. Pew Research Center’s 2014 Global Attitudes Project showed that 85% of Filipinos had a favourable view of Americans while Americans who viewed themselves favourably amounted to 84%. This makes the Philippines the most pro-US country on Earth. And it was that people-to-people relationship which, cynically, the Obama crew believed they could cash-in on.

That reasoning, of course, was facile; being pro-American is not the same as being pro-Obama; and being pro-America doesn’t somehow translate to being anti-Duterte. Filipinos can be pro-American and pro-Duterte at the same time. Which is what they overwhelmingly are. What’s not likely is that they could ever be pro-Obama and pro-Duterte; in that contest Duterte will always be the outright winner.

They might love America, but they absolutely adore their own country and any foreign head of state – even an American one – who denigrates it by pouring scorn on the leader they swept to office in a landslide victory will never unharness that loyalty. It’ll never even shake it.

And anyway, even throughout all the bitterness between the two leaders, Duterte gave American nationals living in the Philippines continual assurances that they were welcome to be in his country; similarly he assured US commercial interests there that they were free to continue business in the archipelago. Indeed, he said he welcomed them. It was Obama whom Duterte told to “go to Hell”, not the American people; not American companies.

At the height of the strained relations between the two presidents, there were a number of media attempts to sow seeds of doubt about the future domicile status of the 220,000 Americans living in the Philippines; and similar attempts by the likes of the American Chamber of Commerce – another megaphone of Obama policy – which put out grave warnings of plummeting US investments to the archipelago.

But what did they expect; that he’d cave-in to that pressure, ditch his War on Drugs and plead for the guns?
And predictably none of that happened. Duterte realigned his foreign policy away from Washington and towards Beijing, which makes obvious sense given the geography. But he never jettisoned trade with the US – that was just another bogey man summoned up by his critics – he simply boosted his country’s trade with China.

The Philippines meanwhile has as much right to make commercial deals with the Mainland as the US does. China is America’s biggest-by-far trading partner in goods; last year, two-way goods trade between them was worth US$578.6 billion.

But getting back to the issue, Duterte never once spoke against the American people – the object of his ire was Obama and his political machine – including, of course, the US mainstream media which was, and remains, the propaganda arm of the US Democratic Party and which still attempts to inflict Obamaesque policy on the Philippines.

Certainly, Duterte turned to China and Russia and Israel for military and police weapons supplies – but that was after US Congressman and close Obama loyalist, Democratic senator Benjamin Cardin, halted a shipment of 26,000 assault rifles destined for Philippine law enforcement. That move was to pressure Duterte to abandon his War on Drugs.

But what did they expect; that he’d cave-in to that pressure, ditch his War on Drugs and plead for the guns? What sort of a leader would do that? Oh yes, a puppet leader which is what Washington wanted in Manila.

Last May, Cardin co-authored a Bill – the unambiguously titled Philippines Human Rights Accountability and Counternarcotics Act of 2017. In support of his proposed legislation, here’s what Cardin said: “Mr Duterte must handle criminal issues through the rule of law and allow drug addicts access to the public health services and treatment they deserve. In the absence of such actions, this legislation is clear in its support for the Filipino people and the importance of our alliance, but also the consequences if Mr Duterte’s actions continue”.

In short, the leader of the Philippine nation was being given instructions on how he should handle his domestic problems – extremely serious ones at that – by a US congressman. Cardin, like Obama, was attempting to bring the Philippines back to the US heel where it’s spent much of its existence since gaining independence from the US in 1946.

Cardin’s outrageous statement is tantamount to suggesting that the US Congress has some overriding mandate which allows it to assume responsibility for the Philippine people over and above that of the country’s democratically elected government.

That’s the America which Duterte had a problem with. But there again, that’s the America which much of America had a problem with – which is largely why Obama’s autocratic Democrats now find themselves out of the White House and enjoying minority status in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Certainly, Duterte used colourful language to describe Obama; but only after the latter ramped up the rhetoric against Duterte – once it was plain that Obama had no interest in trying to understand the situation in the Philippines. That his sole interest was to dictate US policy to Manila.

Obama’s confrontational attitude towards Duterte was largely coloured by the relationship he’d enjoyed with his predecessor, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, whom he’d supported and encouraged to go head to head with China over a much-publicised territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

This worked well for Obama – he used Aquino to paint China as an ogre and a threat to world peace. On the strength of that, in April 2014, he got Aquino to sign up to the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement – a 10-year deal that gave the US a heightened military presence in the region by putting at its disposal a number of Philippine Army bases.

The biggest casualty in all the gung-ho anti-Duterte rhetoric, initiated by the Obama machine in Washington, has been the Philippines’ Liberal Party.
All that was part of the nuts and bolts of Obama’s “Pivot to East Asia” and the realisation of his dream for the US-led Trans Pacific Partnership – a mega trade bloc which excluded China and which depended on an East Asian anchorage.

The biggest casualty in all the gung-ho anti-Duterte rhetoric, initiated by the Obama machine in Washington, has been the Philippines’ Liberal Party. They believed that if they nailed their colours to the Obama mast, that somehow they’d emerge back in control of government.

They couldn’t have been wider of the mark. What they did was to compound the fracture. Obama-Washington’s analysis of the mood in the Philippines – an incredible misreading which still persists; not least among the US media – was taken by the Liberals as reality. They genuinely believed that with the weight of the US Democratic Party behind them that Duterte could be ousted and they’d be restored to power.

Anyone who’s been paying any attention to the Philippines knows that was never going to happen. Furthermore over the course of Duterte’s first year in government, the Liberal Party’s currency has destabilised and devalued in direct proportion to the rise of Duterte’s. And for much of that it can thank its mentors in the US political establishment.

All this leaves the party of Aquino in an extremely precarious position as far as its long-term future is concerned. It’s already paid a very high price for its political naivety and miscalculations. Come the next elections in 2022 it could pay the ultimate price. In fact, ironically, for it to pull out of this downward spiral it needs to bend itself on a U-shaped trajectory. And fairly quickly.

U-turn then, is the wrong turn of phrase where Duterte is concerned. When Obama spoke out of turn, Duterte, in turn, turned his attentions East which turned the tables on Obama, turning the geopolitics of East Asia on its ear in the process. The Philippines was finally pursuing an independent foreign policy and was no longer prepared to have Washington looking over its shoulder as it conducted its internal affairs. In short, the worm had turned.

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