Since before the formation of the post-World War II order, the United States has made notable efforts to create a network of allies and support throughout Asia. One of the earliest American partners was the Philippines, and the relationship between the two countries spans back to 1898. In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded the rights to its former colonies — which included the Philippines — to the U.S.
While the land remained an American territory and protectorate for nearly 50 years, formal diplomatic ties between the newly-independent Philippines and the U.S. began in 1946. Since then, the two nations have become frequent collaborators in defense, trade and other realms. The U.S. has also incurred heavy human costs in its commitment to the island nation, as the capital city of Manila houses the largest U.S. military cemetery of any other country. The histories of these countries are strongly intertwined, and their alliance has been mutually beneficial.
These days, the status quo of U.S.-Philippines relations appears to be in danger. Last week, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte announced his decision to annul the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement. This deal laid out the terms of U.S.-Filipino armed forces cooperation and the stationing of American troops in the Philippines, a fundamental aspect of the partnership. Duterte spoke of his belief that his country “cannot forever rely on other countries for the defense of the state.” The Filipino leader appears firm in his conviction and has given no indication of being open to negotiations.
This tension has been building over the past few years. The Duterte administration has frequently clashed with U.S. leadership since his election four years ago. Among the strongest sticking points between the two countries has been Duterte’s policy toward drug crime in his country. He infamously compared himself to Adolf Hitler and implied he would perpetrate genocide against drug users and dealers. Such disturbing language and resulting policies have resulted in Duterte’s alienation of the U.S., and the American response has been strong. This latest point of conflict came about after U.S. officials cancelled the visa of Philippine Senator Ronald Dela Rosa, who helped engineer Duterte’s violent policies against drug offenders. In response, Duterte threatened, then completed his country’s exit from the agreement, much to the chagrin of high-ranking Filipino foreign policy officials.
The U.S. acted justly when it chose to set an example that figures like Dela Rosa will not be given special consideration and rights to visit the country. Duterte’s demagogic rule in Manila has set a negative tone in relations with the U.S and produced horrifying policies. Yet this case of erosion of the American-Filipino relationship also serves as a warning for those concerned about American interests in Southeast Asia.
Throughout his time in office, Duterte’s Philippines has shown a pivot toward embracing China and moving away from American influence. One example of such behavior is the Filipino president’s willingness to collaborate with Chinese President Xi Jinping on an oil and gas project in the South China Sea, even with the key term of the agreement being that the Philippines would no longer pursue its claims against China for its activities in the area that undermine Philippine sovereignty.
Such a development should be quite frightening to those who value a vibrant network of American international relations. Though Duterte’s foreign policy is mainly a break from that of his predecessors, it is concerning that one of America’s longest-tenured allies in Asia is quickly gravitating toward China’s sphere of influence at the expense of the U.S. If the Philippines can fall into President Xi’s hands, what is to stop other Southeast Asian countries from being lost as well? China’s meteoric rise to the upper echelon of the world’s economies has paid off in attracting new partners around the world. If it can successfully present itself to states in the region as an alternative to American partnership, the U.S. will be worse off in the future.
Though the current state of affairs might represent a problematic emerging pattern, it is important to remember that Rodrigo Duterte is just one man. It is possible, especially given the opinions carried by the Filipino people toward China, that his time at the premiership of the Philippines will end shortly. Perhaps other Southeast Asian nations will look to the Philippines as an example of how not to approach a relationship with their American partners.
Regardless, the U.S. must continue to invest its time, capital and energy in its relationships with nations around the globe, but particularly in Southeast Asia. At a time when China’s brand of authoritarian rule appears to be a fashionable model for foreign governments, America should continue to not only lead by example, but serve as an active and engaged partner for its friends worldwide. As for the Philippines specifically, the U.S. should not bend the knee to Duterte. It should remain willing and eager to continue building strong ties when a new leader steps into the president’s office in Manila.