At the onset of his term, President Donald Trump caused uneasiness among America’s allies both in Western Europe and Asia. This was due to his explicit skepticism of the importance of America’s alliances, and his sharp rhetoric of America First policy. Fortunately, the Trump Administration’s subsequent focus on the US-China strategic competition and its implementation of its Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy counteracted its initial efforts to unravel the foundation of the US alliance system in Asia. This was evident in how it managed the Philippine-US alliance in the face of President Rodrigo Duterte’s diplomatic gambit to distance his country away from its only ally and to gravitate towards Russia and China.
Angered by the former Obama Administration’s public criticism of allegations of extra-judicial killings because of his war on drugs in early September 2016, President Duterte announced without warning that US Special Operations Forces in Mindanao must leave the country. In late October 2016, President Duterte announced his startling plan to separate from the US by unilaterally abrogating the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), the 1997 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), and the 2015 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
In early December 2016, President Trump called President Duterte to assure him that he was fine with the latter’s war on drugs since the Philippines is a sovereign nation. In early May 2017, he called his Philippine counterpart again to express Washington’s commitment to the alliance and his interest in developing a warm and working relationship with him.
The seizure of Marawi City by Islamic militants in late May provided Washington the opportunity to prove its point. The Joint United States Military Assistance Group turned over several M4 carbines, M134D Gatling-style machine guns, M203 grenade launchers, and rubber raiding boats to the Philippine Marines. The Pentagon also announced that US Special Forces were providing Philippine forces with security assistance and training in the areas of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. In July 2017, the Pentagon transferred 10 new reconnaissance planes worth $30 million to the AFP under the Obama Administration’s $425-million Maritime Security Initiative that includes intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance equipment.
Stabilizing the Philippine-US alliance became Washington’s urgent strategic priority. In July 2017, the Pentagon launched a new counter-terrorism operation by elevating the US mission in the Philippines called “Pacific Eagle — Philippines” into an Overseas Contingency Operation or OCO. The Trump Administration’s decision to upgrade its ongoing CT operation in Mindanao was in response to a Philippine government’s request for more American support in fighting extremist groups in the Philippines in particular and in Southeast Asia in general.
Meeting on the side of the 2017 ASEAN summit in Manila, President Trump and President Duterte reaffirmed their commitment to MDT and the implementation of the 2014 EDCA. In November 2017, President Duterte announced that he was on friendly terms with Washington as he allowed the AFP to engage the US military in more vigorous joint military exercises that included joint counter-terrorism training, amphibious and live-fire exercises.
In late 2016, the Philippine-US alliance teetered on the brink of collapse after President Duterte’s announcement of crossing the Rubicon, relative to his charting of an independent course for Philippine foreign policy that would entail aligning his country with its new-found friends — Russia and China. However, President Duterte’s proverbial crossing of the Rubicon was prevented by the AFP’s efforts to convince their commander-in-chief to shift the alliance’s focus away from the China challenge in the South China Sea to counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. More importantly, it was caused by the Trump administration’s policy of bringing Duterte back alongside, rather than pushing him into China’s waiting arms.
A possible change of administration in the light of the Nov. 3 presidential election might cause a major shift from this policy. In this scenario, the Biden Administration might openly raise the allegations of human right violations because of the war on drugs. This will definitely trigger another crisis in the alliance, and even a total breakdown in Philippine-US security relations and push President Duterte to cross his proverbial Rubicon.
To maintain the alliance’s cohesion in the face of the US-China strategic confrontation, the Biden Administration should examine its predecessor’s policy of ensuring that President Duterte is back alongside the US, instead of pushing him into China’s embrace. This does not mean ignoring allegations of human rights violations in the Philippines. A new US administration should engage its Philippine counter-parts in frank but closed-door exchanges on how the two countries can align their anti-drug operations humanely and under the rule of law. This will require Washington to support both countries’ common goals of managing drug addiction and trafficking, addressing Islamic terrorism, effecting accountable and democratic governance, and pursuing the goals of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific region.
Dr. Renato De Castro is a Trustee and Convenor of the National Security and East Asian Affairs Program of the Stratbase ADR Institute.