In the span of six months, the U.S.-Philippines relationship has gone from a 25-year highpoint to a period of worrisome uncertainty. At the center of this shift is President Rodrigo Duterte, whose frequent anti-U.S. rhetoric and desire to shift his country’s foreign policy course signal that the U.S.-Philippines relationship will be hard pressed to maintain, let alone advance, the recent gains in strategic cooperation. The Cipher Brief spoke with Josh Kurlantzick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, to learn more.
The Cipher Brief: What is Duterte’s vision for the Philippines’ regional role? Where does he want to take the country?
Josh Kurlantzick: I'm not sure he has a well-thought out regional role, other than maneuvering the Philippines into a situation where it is less dependent on the U.S. and achieves more of a balance in its foreign relationships. That would include decreasing dependence on the U.S. and potentially balancing that with somewhat more significant relationships with China and potentially other regional powers. However, as with everything with Duterte, it's a bit hard to tell how much is real and is going to lead to concrete policy change, and how much is bluster. I think the policy environment that Duterte has grown up in, that he comes from, is relatively anti-American and is more open to better relations with China than the Aquino administration was. But the Philippine security establishment is pretty close with their U.S. counterparts and would be quite worried about too significant a shift away from the bilateral relationship with the United States.
Beyond that, I'm not sure what regional vision Duterte has – regarding ASEAN, or Southeast Asian economic integration, or anything else. He hasn't really laid that out.
TCB: Recently, President Duterte’s spokesman stated the Philippines wishes to have an ‘open relationship’ with the U.S. and to pursue stronger relations with other countries, particularly China and Russia. What does he mean by this, and how does he see it benefitting the Philippines? What risks is he taking with this approach?
JK: I think he wants to have a more balanced approach between the U.S. and China, and also boost trade with China and Chinese direct investment in the Philippines, particularly in infrastructure but also in other areas. Other countries in Southeast Asia have benefited much more from trade with China than the Philippines has. Russia is a red herring. Russia has significant arms sales in Southeast Asia but it is a modest power, strategically, in Southeast Asia, compared to the U.S., China, or even India, Australia, Japan, and Singapore.
Overall, Duterte's string of somewhat wild statements on a range of matters, sometimes followed by retractions, are not helpful to the Philippines economy—either to equity markets or the real economy. Look at the insane swings in the Philippines' stock exchange over the past 100 days.
TCB: In his state visit to China, Duterte announced he is aligning the Philippines with China and separating from the U.S. What will this mean in practice, and how should the U.S. respond policy-wise?
JK: I think Duterte's state visit to China further solidifies the potential divides both between his policy and U.S. policy, and between his own views and that of the Philippine security establishment. I think it's quite clear that he wants to move the Philippines in a different direction, and it's understandable that he wants Chinese aid and investment, particularly for infrastructure projects. The Philippines lags other countries in Southeast Asia in terms of trade with China, and its poor relationship with China surely has hurt the Philippines' economy. But I'm not sure that the Philippines' security establishment will be on board, or that China (and Russia) can even really take the U.S. place in terms of providing for bilateral security needs.
TCB: Is Duterte’s desire to distance the Philippines from the U.S. a response to the U.S.’s reaction to his war on drugs, is it specific to President Obama’s administration, or does it stem from something else?
JK: I think it's probably a combination of deeply held policy views. Remember, Duterte comes from a pretty left-leaning background and a circle of advisors that are relatively nationalist – and some anger at criticism of the war on drugs. Duterte was mayor in Davao for decades. He long has been close to a group of more left-leaning advisors. Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) founder Jose Maria Sison was his college professor, and little noticed amidst everything else, he has offered cabinet posts to people from the CPP. I don't think it has anything specifically to do with Obama himself at all.
TCB: It appears this growing rift is a problem that will persist into the next U.S. administration. What can the next president do to try and get relations back on the right course with the Philippines?
JK: I think the rift is going to remain into the next presidential administration. Duterte has a six-year term. I think since Duterte is driving the potential change in the relationship, most of what happens largely depends on him.