Asia Pacific | ANALYSIS

Philippines' Duterte tests Trump with move to unravel decades-old alliance

Over the years, Rodrigo Duterte’s regular rants about the U.S. appeared to amount to little more than bluster. This week the Philippine leader finally moved to dismantle an alliance that has endured since World War II.

Duterte’s administration on Tuesday notified the U.S. it would terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement, which has governed military cooperation between the two countries since 1998. It is key to implementing a mutual defense treaty signed in 1951, shortly after the Philippines achieved independence from the U.S.

The move, spurred by the Trump administration’s refusal to give one of Duterte’s political allies a visa, triggered a six-month notification period before it expires. Now the question is whether the Philippine leader will go even further in shunning the country’s main security partner, or if he is simply using this as a negotiating tactic to get a better deal from Trump.

While Duterte has often questioned the benefits of the U.S. alliance while heaping praise on China and Russia, he has thus far stopped short of formally ending it. The Philippine population has a much more favorable view of the U.S. than China, and the military has worked with American counterparts to counter Beijing’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea.

“It’s a very unpopular decision,” said Rommel Banlaoi, who teaches international studies at Miriam College in Manila and has written about foreign policy in the Philippines for three decades. He saw Duterte’s move as a way to win concessions.

“The president is just conveying his desire to redefine the Philippines’ relationship with the U.S. — in other words, he wants a better deal,” he said.

If that is the case, Duterte has a stiff challenge on his hands. U.S. President Donald Trump has pressured allies around the globe to pay more for their defense, stoking tensions with Europe, South Korea, Japan and other long-time American security partners.

When asked about Duterte’s move to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement on Wednesday, Trump said “that’s fine” while adding he has a good relationship with the Philippine leader.

“I really don’t mind, if they would like to do that, that’s fine,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “We’ll save a lot of money. You know my views are different from other people. I view it as, ‘Thank you very much, we’ll save a lot of money.'”

Over the decades, the Philippines has been the recipient of billions of dollars in U.S. foreign aid, including $278.9 million in total distributed funds in 2018, second only to Indonesia among 29 countries in East Asia and Oceania, according to data from the United States Agency for International Development. Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said last week his country has received $1.3 billion in military assistance since 1998.

The U.S. deploys an average of 500 to 600 troops in the Philippines on a continuous basis, according to California-based think tank RAND Corp. They have helped to reduce the number of attacks from insurgents and Islamic State-linked groups on the Muslim-majority island of Mindanao, where Duterte is from. The two nations have also conducted joint naval patrols in the South China Sea to counter China’s growing maritime ambitions.

On Wednesday, Philippine military chief Felimon Santos told lawmakers the withdrawal “will affect our rescue operations, definitely,” even as he said the armed forces had drawn up contingency plans.

“Once it’s out of the agreement, the Philippines will have few tools left to push back against Chinese pressure on Philippines’ Navy, fisheries and oil and gas development,” said Murray Hiebert, a senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “This will allow China to become even bolder and more aggressive in pushing its claims in the disputed sea.”

The Philippines has periodically reassessed its relationship with the U.S., which ruled the Southeast Asian nation as a territory for nearly 50 years after it was ceded by Spain. After World War II, Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base, near Manila, were the largest U.S. military outposts in the Western Pacific. Philippine lawmakers voted to close them down in the early 1990s.

But it has struggled to maintain a consistent position under Duterte.

In July, Manila’s envoy to the U.S., Jose Manuel Romualdez, said the two nations were working to strengthen a 2014 defense agreement that included the possibility of more U.S.-backed military structures on Philippines bases. The negotiations came after an incident a month prior when a Chinese vessel “rammed” into and sunk a Filipino fishing boat within its own internationally recognized exclusive economic zone.

Saying he was “invoking the mutual defense treaty,” Duterte was quoted as saying in a local television interview “I would like America to gather their Seventh Fleet in front of China. I’m asking them now.”

Duterte has repeatedly questioned whether the U.S. would defend the Philippines if China seizes disputed shoals and reefs in the South China Sea — skepticism that has persisted for decades. Speaking to reporters on Thursday after Trump’s remarks, Duterte spokesman Salvador Panelo said, “We didn’t know exactly whether he was very serious on that.”

“You must remember that the perceived enemies of the U.S. are very near this country, hence they need us,” Panelo said.

Despite Trump’s remarks, other arms of the U.S. government sought to mend the damage. The U.S. Embassy in Manila called the withdrawal notice “a serious step with significant implications for the U.S.-Philippines alliance.” Pentagon chief Mark Esper called it “a move in the wrong direction.”

If he follows through on scrapping the agreement, Duterte may then end two other military pacts with the U.S., including the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty that forms the foundation of the security relationship. His administration has already announced a review of the treaty, which is ongoing.

Whether it stays or goes largely depends on the sway of the Philippine defense establishment. Richard Jacobson, a retired diplomat who served with the U.S. Embassy in Manila, said Duterte’s announcement shows he has won enough support within the military ranks — thanks in part to a large budget allocation — to finally fulfill a long-standing goal of pivoting the country away from the U.S. and toward China.

“He appears to be building his legacy with two-plus years left in his term,” said Jacobson, who is now a risk consultant.

Others aren’t so sure. Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said there would be enough resistance in the Philippine Congress and security apparatus to prevent Duterte from totally withdrawing from the alliance.

No matter what, U.S.-Philippine military ties under Duterte are set to get much weaker. And that only benefits China, which has long sought to unravel the American alliance system in Asia, particularly as it pushes deeper into the South China Sea.

“It gives the green light to greater China control of the area,” said Bridget Welsh, a political scientist at the Rome-based John Cabot University who specializes in Southeast Asia. “There will be a search for alternative measures and relationships on the part of the U.S. for access to the area.”

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