Duterte’s Frenemies with Trump: A rollercoaster of military deals

  • + Duterte hesitates over his  military alliance with Trump.
  • + US-Philippines military friendship goes a long way back. 
  • + With China lurking in the South China Sea, Trump wants to stick around.
Source: DW

Why is Duterte a frenemy of Trump?

Answer: Duterte is going back and forth with US-Phillippine military deals. 

On February 11th 2020, Rodrigo Duterte, the populist president of the Philippines, stated his intention to abandon the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States. However, in early June, the Foreign Secretary of the Philippines, Locsin, announced through Twitter the decision not to terminate the agreement in light of other developments, mainly the rising assertiveness of China in the South China Sea. The VFA, therefore, still stands considering that the Philippines, along with Vietnam and Malaysia, have conflicting territorial claims with China in the region. However, it seems the US is staying in the neighborhood despite Duterte’s profound dislike of Trump. 

This Visiting Forces Agreement is part of a security blanket for the Philippines by the US. This type of pact is a bilateral agreement between a host country, in this case the Philippines, and a foreign nation, the US, that has military forces visiting the host country. It basically allows for the US military to conduct large-scale joint exercises in the Philippines by granting freedom of movement of US forces within the country. However, the military comradery between the two nations is quite ancient. 
The US and the Philippines’ military alliance started in 1951 with a Mutual Defense Treaty. Nonetheless, there have been ups and downs in the relations between the two countries. In the 70’s there was a renegotiation of the treaty and in the 90’s the Philippines called for the closure of US military facilities. However, in 1999, the first Visiting Forces Agreement between the Philippines and the US was signed in the face of Chinese aggressiveness in the region. The situation looks strikingly similar now.

What does Duterte want?

Answer: He dislikes Trump, but does it matter for their military alliance?

The decision to leave the VFA that took place in February follows Duterte’s general anti-US attitudes. More specifically, it follows Washington’s refusal to grant a visa to Ronald dela Rosa, a Filipino lawmaker who was head of the police in 2016 when Duterte underwent a deadly war on drugs that cost hundreds of lives. Dela Rosa was said to violate human rights by all the main human rights watch dogs. However, Duterte’s dissatisfaction with Trump and the US does not end there. Not only has he deemed US actions as unfair, but he has complained about their military presence as “ill-mannered” by not sharing their military equipment. 

Duterte’s rhetoric is vividly against the US and, unsurprisingly, very supportive of China and Russia in terms of both trade and influence. On multiple occasions he has shown admiration for the Russian Armed Forces and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. He even personally thanked Xi for his coronavirus assistance. Despite the territorial dispute in the South China Sea, the bilateral relations between the two countries have been nourished by Duterte. China and the Philippines have signed several bilateral agreements in the past years. These include a controversial one on gas and oil development as well as two flagship infrastructure projects. As with many South East Asian countries, there is fear that the Philippines might fall in China’s debt trap. However, officials of both countries assure this is not true. 

While Duterte is the commander in chief, he might not get his way when it comes to kicking Washignton out and welcoming Beijing in. His cabinet does not support the decision. They see clear benefits from a US alliance. Not only is there strong popular support among Filipinos for the US over China, but the VFA has brought many benefits to the Philippines. For example, US forces have helped in the fight against the jihadists terrorist group, Abu Sayyaf in Sulu, or provided humanitarian assistance and disaster relief following Typhoon Haiyan. Indeed, decades of close interaction between the two countries has increased support for the US among the Philippines defense sector. China, on the other hand, is viewed primarily as a threat. 

The question is, therefore, whether Duterte’s personal perspective can undo the decades of close military collaboration with the US. The answer is known, but it may not be only up to him. A bipartisan senior leader of the Senate requested the Supreme Court of the Philippines to determine whether Duarte alone could undo the agreement. While the government bouched to follow the ruling of the Court, it is likely the Court rules in Duterte’s favor since it is dominated by allies of the leader, allowing him to unilaterally withdraw from the treaty.

What does Trump want?

Answer: To keep the Philippines as an ally.

Trump, following his general lack of interest in foreign alliances, did not really seem to care. When asked about his opinion on Duterte’s original retraction, he stated: “I don’t really mind if they would like to do that. It will save a lot of money…”. However, from a military perspective, having access to the Philippines is crucial in order to control Chinese military ambitions. 

There are two main factors that pressure Trump’s interest in the Philippines as a military partnership. First, considering the country has been a very close ally of the US, retaining this military partnership in the region is crucial for the US. Second, the VFA is the only treaty with an ally bordering the South China Sea. So, it logically follows that the US interest is to stay in (military) business with the Philippines.

What is Trump doing?

Answer: Securing direct access to the South China Sea. 

While Trump might act careless, Washington is quite content with the retraction of termination. In a statement made by the US Embassy in Manila, the sentiment of cooperation was demonstrated. It stated: “Our longstanding alliance has benefited both countries, and we look forward to continued close security and defense cooperation with the Philippines”. Hence, the agreement still stands. 

Currently, the main US bases are the Subic Bay Naval Base, Basa Air Base, Fort Magsaysay, and others which are located in very strategic places for the US. Most importantly, they are near the South China Sea, thus enhancing American ability to challenge China close by. Without them, the closest military bases the US has are farther away from the conflict in Guam, Okinawa or Australia. 

Who is winning and what about you?

Answer: Trump seems to be a better pal than Xi right now even if Duterte disagrees. 

While Duterte’s aversion for the US and the President is intense, their military friendship is secure at the moment. The Phillipines is the oldest Asian ally of the US. And, there are clear incentives on both sides to keep it going considering the Chinese giant across the sea. But, why is the South China Sea so problematic? Basically, since 2013, China has built artificial islands in the Spratly Islands and the Paracel region. This is highly troublesome since there are five different countries who also claim jurisdiction over this territory. 

 In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration of the United Nations discredited the Chinese claim to the territory, but China carried on building regardless. Not only is the authority of the Arbitral Tribunal’s award diminished, but this could set a dangerous precedent of blatenent breaches of international law. While this conflict directly affects the Philippines, Duarte has still decided to side with Xi stating the Chinese “mean no harm”. 

 More importantly for you, freedom of navigation in the South China Sea might be in danger. Considering an estimated 3.37 trillion USD worth of global trade passes through this location each year, including most of China’s exports, freedom of navigation is essential for international trade that provides us with most of our stuff. Luckily, the people around Duarte do understand the menace of the Chinese blunt disregard for international law and the need to keep the Americans around.