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The US Foreign Policy Debacle In The Philippines – Analysis


The decision by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte to terminate its Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with its U.S. ally has elicited a cacophony of wailing and  gnashing of teeth in the US foreign policy community. This initial reaction may soon be followed by recriminations regarding “who lost the Philippines’. But Duterte’s move to officially distance the Philippines from the US militarily was long in coming and should have been foreseen. Indeed, this particular US foreign policy failure is the inevitable result of blinkered diplomatic ignorance and arrogance.

The context is important. The US military has had a presence in the Philippines at least since the transfer of colonial rule from Spain in 1898.  The Philippines was an American colony from 1898 to its independence in 1946.  Since 1951 the Philippines and the U.S. have had a Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) which under certain conditions provides that each would support the other if one were attacked by a third party.  Under this arrangement the U.S. had large bases in the Philippines of strategic importance to its continued regional dominance– Subic naval base and Clark air force base.  But many Filipinos considered them evidence of US imperialism and wanted them closed. 

In 1992, the Philippines evicted the troops.  In 1999 the VFA was negotiated to provide the framework for deployment of US forces in the country. In 2016, a supplement to the VFA was negotiated –the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement–to allow the U.S. to rotate troops into the Philippines and to build and operate facilities on Philippine bases. It has been slow in its implementation and anyway the abrogation of the VFA may make it moot.

The reactions of US Asia policy wonks to this current development ranges from panicky predictions of a serious blow to the U.S. hub and spoke alliance system in Asia-  as well as its war against terror – to ‘don’t worry, this – and the Duterte administration – will pass. 

Brad Glosserman writing in the Japan Times asserts that the 1999 VFA is essential to the implementation of the MDT.  This was corroborated by Philippines Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. who indicated that ‘without the VFA, the MDT would be “hollow” and the EDCA “practically useless”. 

Derek Grossman of Rand thinks the collapse of the alliance would send the “message to Washington’s remaining allies and partners that you simply shouldn’t trust that the US will defend or assist you against China.  

James Holmes of the Naval War College thinks terminating the VFA “could ripple throughout Southeast Asia to the detriment of _ _ US maritime strategy toward China”. But he also thinks both sides are bluffing and that they need each other enough that a deal will be struck.

When the possibility of a downturn in US-Philippines military relations first arose,  Satu Limaye, the director of the East-West Center in Washington did not think the alliance was in danger of unraveling.   He dismissed the possibility saying  “US-Philippines relations have weathered far worse than the current tempest.”

Nevertheless some in the US government are worried.  According to Mark Esper the Secretary of Defense “I do think it would be a move in the wrong direction as we both_ _are trying to say to the Chinese: ‘You must obey the international rules of order.”   

Indo-Pacific Commander Admiral Phil Davidson fears that ending the defence relationship would undermine the counter terrorism campaign in the Philippines south. The US embassy in Manila said that the withdrawal is “a serious step with significant implications.”    

On the other hand, US President Donald Trump’s response was to welcome it. He said nonchalantly “I don’t really mind if they would like to do that, it will save a lot of money.”  But Amy Searight, former deputy assistant secretary of defence for South and Southeast Asia said “Trumps’ willingness to let it end certainly hurts US credibility”.

Supposedly, the proximate cause of Duterte making good on his standing threat to disengage militarily from the U.S. was the US denial of a visa for his ex police chief because he had been in charge of Duterte’s war against drugs.  But if so, this was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.  This foreign policy disaster was long in the making and involved generations of US foreign policy makers and ‘experts’.  Not only did they just not ‘get it’–that is, the underlying cause and depth of Duterte’s personal angst– but they failed to recognize that the roots of the problem were — American cultural hubris and diplomatic heavy handedness.  They all blindly –and some even enthusiastically– supported and implemented the US policy of advancing US interests as if they all were the same as those of the Filipino people.  They are not and never were.

As a recent example of this misconception, in response to some of Duterte’s early anti-US rhetoric, then US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Denial Russel said “there’s lots of noise, a lot of stray voltage coming from Manila. We’ve been through a lot worse in our 70-year history”. 

He added that “the benefits the Philippines gets from U.S. assistance and protection under the1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and the strong public support in that country for America “make it improbable any Philippine leader would distance himself from the United States.”

People and cultures have long memories especially when they have been badly  treated by another nation.  American colonialism in the Philippines tried to Americanize Filipino culture. To America, Filipinos were “our little brown brothers”.   The legacy of American colonialism is still very apparent in the Philippines.  Its Constitution’s recognizes English as an official language and its education system is modeled on and oriented toward the U.S. Particularly galling is the continuing condescending treatment of Filipinos and especially Filipinas by the US military and American ‘tourists’ as well as by the U.S. diplomatic approach. There is a dormant volcano of resentment that has built up over decades of Americans taking advantage of Filipino warmth and tolerance. It last erupted against the VFA in 2006 when—against a Philippines court’s orders– the US Embassy harbored a US Marine convicted of rape until his conviction was controversially overturned.

Duterte’s attitude towards America may be based in part on personal experience. As a college student he was supposedly denied a visa to visit the U.S.  In May 2002 when he was mayor of Davao, the U.S. embarrassed him by facilitating the surreptitious departure of an American charged with causing an explosion in a hotel there.   Duterte did not forget what he considered this arrogance and deceit.  In 2013, he refused an American request to base drones at Davao’s old airport. 

 When Duterte was elected, the U.S. began to reap what it had sowed.  His then Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay Jr. explained the view of the current leadership thus “The United States held on to invisible chains that reined us in towards dependence and submission as little brown brothers not capable of true independence and freedom.”   

As Duterte has put it, he is the democratically elected “President of a sovereign state and we have long-ceased to be a colony.” The current approach of the U.S. towards the Philippines has rekindled this anti-American angst.

Duterte remains hugely popular with his people—he has an 87% approval rating. Whatever happens now, he has stood up to the U.S. and it will be very difficult if not impossible to put the genie of nationalism back in the bottle. He believes he is freeing his country and people from the ideological and political shackles of America’s neocolonialism.

 But there are also solid contemporary reasons why Duterte is doing what he is doing.  He thinks American power in the region is waning and that China’s is rising. He is unsure if America will back up the Philippines in a conflict with China. He also believes that the Philippines will have to live with and get along with China for the long term.   Becoming more neutral militarily is more compatible with this view.

What Duterte is doing is risky.  He may only be switching one hegemon for another. Or he may wind up losing both as friends and supporters.

Worse there is the possibility of a US-supported military coup.  Any such US involvement in regime change would only compound this foreign policy disaster.  It would just restart the cycle of resistance and rebellion against the U.S. and its supporters and ultimately splinter the country to the advantage of global Muslim jihadist movements—and to China because it will neutralize an American asset.  

 The political context in the region and the Philippines has changed dramatically and the U.S. must adjust to it.  The only way to rebuild the integrity and robustness of the US-Philippines alliance is for the U.S. to shed its neocolonial approach and focus on truly common interests – as defined by—not for– the Philippines.

A much shorter version of this piece appeared in the South China Morning Post

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Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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