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Rodrigo Duterte

Trump meeting with Duterte could help get ties ‘back on track’ as Manila edges closer to China

But observers say even if relations between US and the Philippines improve, Manila will continue to pivot towards Beijing

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 October, 2017, 5:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 October, 2017, 10:02pm

The Philippines will be looking to get strained relations with the United States on a more stable track when US President Donald Trump travels to Manila next month, but the Southeast Asian nation will also continue its pivot towards China.

Trump and his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte will meet on November 13 during the last stop of the US leader’s five-nation Asian tour, as Washington moves to highlight its commitment to Manila.

Relations between the two countries have been tense in recent years, with Duterte – who has long expressed anti-American sentiments – bristling at former US president Barack Obama’s criticism of his notorious war on drugs, which has claimed the lives of more than 7,000 Filipinos.

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Still, Washington has been a long-time defence ally of the Philippines, reinforced this week when US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis met Duterte in the Philippines to discuss ways to deepen military ties.

Trump could help get the relationship “back on track” if he and Duterte hit it off in November, said Christopher Primiano, a teaching fellow based at the Ningbo campus of the University of Nottingham.

But he added that the US president is “completely unpredictable”, highlighted by Trump’s decision to skip the key East Asia Summit in the Philippines on November 14 and head home early.

“We’ll see how things evolve in the event that Trump cosies up to him, since Trump is not interested at all in spreading human rights globally or rule of law – this is just not a priority for him,” he said. “I think that Duterte probably feels more comfortable with Trump than Obama … [but] it is tough to figure out how things may evolve because [Trump] acts so impulsively.”

The US president sparked a backlash when it was revealed that he praised Duterte’s “unbelievable job on the drug problem” and invited him to the White House back in April, according to a leaked transcript of their phone call.

“Duterte and Trump are in the position to get along much better than Obama and Duterte,” said Calla Wiemer, an expert on China’s economic relations with Southeast Asia at the University of the Philippines School of Economics.

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The Philippines, and other Asian nations the US president will visit, will be looking for signs of the US policy direction on Asia amid uncertainties over Trump’s “America first” agenda and withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deals.

But observers said even if relations between Washington and Manila improve, the Philippines will continue to embrace economic ties with China to pursue an “independent foreign policy” shift away from the US.

“There has been a fundamental shift in Philippine policy with China since Duterte came to power,” Primiano said. “[Duterte] is trying to benefit strategically in terms of economic gain from the Chinese government, but he’s not interested in being aggressive with China.”

Economic ties have deepened significantly in recent months. China became the Philippines’ top trading partner in 2016, with US$21.9 billion in total bilateral trade. Duterte visited China last autumn, returning with a slew of funding and investment pledges from China worth US$24 billion.

China has financed major infrastructure projects in the Philippines while throwing its support behind Manila’s aggressive anti-drug and terror initiatives, recently supplying the nation with guns and ammunition worth millions. The two sides agreed to broaden defence and military-to-military engagement after a bilateral meeting of their defence ministers in the Philippines on Wednesday.

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Duterte has meanwhile treated the South China Sea dispute as a “natural part of a broad-based relationship”, said Aaron Rabena, an associate fellow at the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations.

Duterte’s overtures towards Beijing helped de-escalate the 2012 Scarborough Shoal incident, allowing Filipino fishermen to return to the disputed shoal after his trip to China.

But tensions over the resource-rich waters will continue to factor in their relationship. China lays claim to 90 per cent of the South China Sea, despite an international tribunal ruling invalidating its claim last year.

The sea was identified as the “foremost security challenge to the Philippines’ sovereignty and territorial integrity” in its latest national security policy.

“The objective now is to make sure that while the dispute has yet to be resolved, the tensions are managed carefully,” said Mico Galang, a researcher at the National Defence College of the Philippines. “The challenge, however, is for both sides [to] prevent a crisis like the 2012 Scarborough Shoal incident.”

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Still, Manila needs to continue its balancing act between the United States – with which it has ongoing military alliances and collaboration – and Beijing to achieve the “geopolitical sweet spot” referenced by Philippine ambassador to China Jose Santiago Santa Romana.

“[Being] mindful of the changing dynamics of great power relationships in the region, I think it is most beneficial for the Philippines to maintain stable relations with both Washington and Beijing,” Galang said.