The US-Philippine Alliance in the Duterte Era: A Path to Recalibration


The Philippines’ new president, Rodrigo Duterte, continues to make headlines with his colorful rhetoric, including a string of insults directed at the United States, a treaty ally. From the misreported obscenity directed at outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama last month, which led to the cancellation of a much-awaited bilateral meeting, to his threats to end military exercises and even abrogate a new defense pact, Duterte’s remarks have been grabbing international media attention.

Yet as I argue in a new essay for the Philippine media outlet Rappler, attention to any one of Duterte’s comments directed at Washington or his rhetoric in general misses the point. Those familiar with Duterte know that he has long had a personal distrust of the United States, and those who know the Philippines well understand that he is in fact tapping into a broader sentiment among segments of the population who have long viewed Washington’s legacy in the country with suspicion.

Furthermore, officials from both sides claim that while some of Duterte’s rhetoric has been distracting, high-level visits and working level meetings are still going on well, and it remains to be seen how statements coming out of the president’s office will factor into the formulation and implementation of actual policy. After all, though leaderships may change, the national interests and strategic realities that undergird treaty alliances remain largely the same.

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The real question for the United States and the Philippines, then, is how both sides can recalibrate their alliance in the next few years with changes in leaderships in both countries and the new realities therein, with Duterte, a former mayor of Davao City, still very much new to foreign policy, and either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump set to occupy the White House from January 2017 on (See: “Trump or Clinton, Challenges Ahead for U.S. Asia Policy”). The U.S.-Philippine alliance under Obama and Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, had reached a high point, with the establishment of new senior-level dialogues, the signing of a new defense pact, and even Philippine interest in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) being just some of the highlights (See: “Why the Philippines is Critical to the US Rebalance to Asia”).

But the rude awakening the alliance has received under Duterte since his inauguration on June 30 has led to uncertainty about its future direction. To be sure, the U.S.-Philippine alliance has been through its share of ups and downs since over the past decades. But if both sides are serious about both seizing opportunities that the relationship affords as well as managing lingering challenges, they need to work hard in the coming months to recalibrate the alliance for a new era even as they pursue a dizzying array of other domestic and foreign policy objectives.

As I argue in my piece, getting to his point requires both sides to recognize several realities. On the Philippine side, Duterte is right to point to past U.S. transgressions that date back to the colonial period (some of which Americans today do not even recall), and is justified in wanting to pursue a more “independent foreign policy,” which could mean relatively greater distance from Washington and closer ties with Beijing. Every Southeast Asian state, including the Philippines, is trying to balance its relationships with the United States, China, and other major powers, and many had, in fact, expected Manila to try to repair its ties with Beijing after a tense few years under Aquino irrespective of which leader came after him.

But it is also true that Duterte needs to recognize two realities. First, though the Philippines may be striving for the ideal of an independent foreign policy, at present it is still very much dependent on the United States. Washington is not only Manila’s top security ally — boosting the capabilities of one of Asia’s weakest militaries through capacity-building programs, engagements, and exercises — but also a key economic partner being its top foreign investor and third largest trading partner. Given this reality, whatever Duterte’s own personal preferences, pragmatism would suggest that he further his country’s national interests by building on an important U.S.-Philippine alliance and use that to secure better ties with other nations (including China) from a position of strength, rather than undermining it and weakening Manila’s hand (See: “The Risks of Duterte’s China and South China Sea Approach”).

Second, and on a related note, even if Duterte sees Washington as merely advancing Philippine interests as part of a domestic-first foreign policy, he must realize that U.S.-Philippine relations will continue to be a two-way street, not just a process where Manila enlists its ally to achieve its own goals. On Manila’s part, getting U.S. support – which, as mentioned earlier, is quite significant – will depend on various factors including the amount the Philippines is prepared to contribute bilaterally, regionally, and globally, as well as the extent of domestic political support in Washington.

Under Aquino, there was a clear sense among not just the Obama administration, but also the U.S. Congress, that the Philippines was pulling its own weight in the alliance in a level not seen in decades, focusing more on external defense within its own military modernization program, but also supporting the rules-based order through various means, from filing a case against China in the South China Sea through expressing interest in the TPP.

But under Duterte, words and actions – including skipping certain ASEAN meetings, downplaying the South China Sea issue, and minimizing human rights concerns – have led to deep uncertainty about how much value the Philippines will have in advancing U.S. regional interests, where it will fit in the hierarchy of Washington’s ever-widening network of allies and partners, and how various U.S. government actors (especially Congress) will react to some of the president’s colorful remarks (See: “US Hits Right Note at Shangri-La with Principled Security Network”). If the Duterte administration does not right the ship soon, it could lose a valuable opportunity to engage the United States and get Washington to at the very least contribute to its own domestic priorities.

On the U.S. side, Washington too needs to find the balance between addressing its legitimate concerns about the future direction of the U.S.-Philippine alliance while also keeping in mind the outlook of the Duterte’ administration and what is possible for the relationship during his tenure. Just like Duterte is entitled to raise old grievances about America’s colonial legacy and Philippine overdependence, Washington is right to express its anxieties about the relationship’s future given previous turbulent periods in the alliance on issues from human rights to burden sharing.

Besides, from a U.S. policymaker’s perspective, the stakes are arguably much higher now than in the past given the wide range of regional and global problems Washington and its allies and partners need to address – from a more confident and assertive China to an increasingly troubled ASEAN, from a rising Islamic State to a frail Europe and still anemic global economy – as well as recent gains that have been made, such as on maritime security cooperation with the Philippines’ National Coast Watch Center being a key initial hub for the Maritime Security Initiative for instance (See: “America’s New Maritime Security Initiative for Southeast Asia”).

But though drawing red lines to ensure that progress in certain areas – such as approval of further EDCA sites as Manila engages China – is understandable, this must be accompanied by the acknowledgement of two key realities on Washington’s part. First, it is still early days. It is not uncommon for Philippine (or U.S.) presidents to take a while to settle into their new position, and Duterte’s bold initiatives at home and outreach to China abroad may lose steam quicker than he thinks, prompting a change of heart towards Washington under a new U.S. administration (See: “The Real Danger of Rodrigo Duterte”).

It is also far from clear how his rhetoric will translate into reality in the U.S.-Philippine relationship, and it is too early to tell with new envoys appointed for both countries. Even though patience may be difficult for Washington if Duterte continues his string of insults and an angry U.S. Congress wants to react, reacting coolly and proportionally may also ultimately be key to minimizing any fallout.

The second reality, and arguably one that may be tougher to accept for Washington, is that it may ultimately not be possible for the U.S.-Philippine alliance to ever reach a level anywhere close to the strategic alignment seen under Aquino. Given this possibility, Washington should not just hope and wait for Duterte to come around, but simultaneously prepare for a more modest outlook for the alliance, be it selective engagement on a few key areas like counterterrorism and law enforcement, or even minimal quiet cooperation amid continued public hostility from Duterte. If the United States continues to get mixed signals from the Philippines, it must draw red lines to establish a clear floor for the alliance to preserve what has been achieved, then shape the contours of a realistic ceiling by articulating how Washington can contribute to the administration’s domestic priorities and what it expects in return.

Alliances often go through periods of change under new leaderships. The U.S.-Philippine alliance is no stranger to this, and under new administrations on both sides, the process will take its course with its share of twists and turns. But if both sides are serious about recalibrating ties for a new era, they need to start thinking carefully and creatively about managing this alliance.

I’d urge you to read the full Rappler piece here, where I delve into much more specifics on these points.

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