Illustration: Craig Stephens
Richard Heydarian
Richard Heydarian

US-Philippines alliance back on track as Duterte’s China charm offensive crumbles

  • After years of Duterte pledging separation from the US and courting China’s friendship, Manila and Washington appear to be on good terms again
  • Unfulfilled Chinese promises, maritime incidents involving Chinese vessels and strong pro-US advocacy within the government have changed Duterte’s foreign policy

The more things change, the more they stay the same. In many ways, this is the story of the US-Philippines alliance which, following a few turbulent years of diplomatic acrimony, is rapidly returning to form.

Five years ago, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to end his country’s century-old alliance with Washington. Amid diplomatic rows over human rights issues, he even cussed at then US president Barack Obama.
But Duterte has entered his twilight months in office with a radically different tone and strategic predisposition. He openly thanked US President Joe Biden for pandemic-related help, restored the all-important Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and oversaw an upgrade in bilateral defence cooperation.

The Philippines military chief recently announced that, not only are the Balikatan joint military drills set to return in “full scale”, but the two allies are expected to conduct more than 300 joint defence activities and exercises next year. That is by far the largest in both countries’ history and among the most in America’s long roster of Indo-Pacific allies.

When Duterte first came to power, few took seriously his promise to overhaul foreign policy. Yet, even before his election, the Filipino populist had repeatedly signalled his preference for a pivot to China at the expense of traditional alliances, especially with the United States.


‘China has the arms, we do not’, Duterte rules out confronting Beijing in the South China Sea

‘China has the arms, we do not’, Duterte rules out confronting Beijing in the South China Sea

Aside from his personal grievances and ideological antipathy towards Washington, which has dominated military affairs in his home island of Mindanao, this was also about strategic pragmatism.

Throughout the years, he has consistently questioned America’s reliability as an ally, especially in the event of conflict with China in the South China Sea. He also made clear before winning the presidency that: “What I need from China is help to develop my country.”
While most Filipinos have consistently held favourable views of the US, they also share Duterte’s pragmatic streak. In an authoritative 2017 survey, about half of Filipino respondents either did not agree with or were doubtful about whether the country’s alliance with the US had been “beneficial to the Philippines” amid the South China Sea disputes.

Just a few years earlier, during a high-profile visit to Manila, Obama repeatedly refused to categorically commit to helping the Philippines in an event of war in the disputed area.


Protesters call for Duterte to step down as Philippine president defends his drug war policies

Protesters call for Duterte to step down as Philippine president defends his drug war policies
Meanwhile, a Pew Research Centre survey showed the number of Filipinos supporting improved economic relations with China rose from 43 per cent in 2015 to 67 per cent when Duterte took power.

No wonder Duterte’s strategic flirtation with China and his decision to abrogate the VFA – which facilitates large-scale Philippine-US joint exercises – amid diplomatic rows over human rights issues with Washington, seldom provoked massive public backlash.

Three factors, however, have forced a major turnabout in Duterte’s foreign policy in recent months.

First, Duterte’s hopes for large-scale Chinese infrastructure investments have remained largely unfulfilled. Neither have the two countries managed to negotiate any lasting diplomatic compromise, including a proposed joint exploration agreement, in the resource-rich South China Sea.


Philippine fishermen claim continued Chinese harassment on South China Sea

Philippine fishermen claim continued Chinese harassment on South China Sea

As a result, Duterte has struggled to show any major achievements in Philippine-China relations as he enters his final few months in office. Meanwhile, the US has doubled down on its commitment to the Philippines, vowing to stand by its ally in the event of an attack on its troops, vessels or aircraft by a hostile party in the South China Sea.

Second, a series of maritime incidents have reinforced anti-Chinese sentiment in the Philippines. These include a collision between a Chinese militia vessel and a Filipino fishing boat in the Reed Bank in 2019 as well as the months-long stand-off over the Whitsun Reef earlier this year.
Reports of Chinese coastguard forces harassing Filipino fishing vessels have enraged the Filipino public, which has advocated for a far tougher stance in the South China Sea. In a 2019 survey, nine out of 10 respondents said the Duterte administration should wrest back control of Philippine-claimed islands controlled by China, especially Scarborough Shoal.
Finally, the Philippine defence and foreign policy establishment has gradually reasserted its influence on the country’s foreign policy. Largely trained and equipped by the US, the Armed Forces of the Philippines has repeatedly advocated for robust defence cooperation with traditional allies, especially in the realm of counterterrorism and maritime security.


Philippines reverses decision to end military troop pact with US

Philippines reverses decision to end military troop pact with US
Meanwhile, senior Filipino diplomats have resisted any major joint exploration deal with China, which could compromise the country’s sovereign claims in the South China Sea. Duterte’s top two cabinet members, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr, have been openly critical of China’s expanding footprint in the South China Sea while advocating for deeper defence cooperation with Washington.

Earlier this year, on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the Philippine-US Mutual Defence Treaty, both Lorenzana and Locsin visited Washington and met top Biden administration officials.

Having successfully advocated for the restoration of the VFA, the two Filipino officials agreed to the full implementation of all key bilateral defence deals, including the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement. This would allow the Pentagon to rotate large numbers of troops and position weapons in key Philippine bases near the disputed islands in the South China Sea.

Already negotiating an F-16 fighter jet deal and exploring a new maritime security framework agreement, the two allies also agreed to resume their bilateral strategic dialogue as well as 2+2 high-level meetings in the coming months.

Biden is also expected to hold a bilateral summit with Duterte on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in November to reinforce the ongoing revitalisation in bilateral ties. By all indications, the alliance is returning to form after years of strategic dithering and diplomatic disruption.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and author of “Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific” and the forthcoming “Duterte’s Rise”