What's behind Duterte's U-turn on scrapping US defence pact

Throughout his presidency, Duterte has shown great sensitivity to the views of the Philippine defence establishment, from generals and officers to veteran diplomats and senior Cabinet members. – AP

PHILIPPINE President Rodrigo Duterte is a minefield of unfathomable contradictions.

But if there is one thing that he has been consistent about throughout decades in politics, it is his long-simmering resentment against the West, particularly America's influence in the Philippines.

In his first major foreign policy statement as President, he declared: "I will be chart(ing) a (new) course (for the Philippines) on its own and will not be dependent on the United States."

For Duterte, the Philippines needs to be truly "independent", which will inevitably involve downgrading century-old military cooperation as well as upgrading strategic ties with the alternative superpowers of China and Russia.

As such, the Filipino President's decision earlier this month to suspend the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US seemed to be a surprising U-turn.

However, two factors prevented Duterte from actualising his repeated threats to his country's alliance with America - namely, deep institutional ties between Washington and the Philippine defence establishment, as well as the implications of a resurgent China in the South China Sea.

Two views on Duterte
As popular and powerful as he may be, Duterte could ignore neither the views of veteran soldiers and diplomats nor China's strategic opportunism in the South China Sea in recent months.

There are generally two schools of thought on Duterte and his foreign policy.

On the one hand, critics have described him as a "Chinese governor", a pro-Beijing Manchurian candidate and even a "Filipino Hugo Chavez", who will sell out his country to China to sustain a mindless revolt against the United States.

Duterte's almost slavish comments vis-a-vis China, including his professed "love" and "need" for Beijing leadership, whose "mercy" he cherishes, has only reinforced such alarmist portrayals. Under his presidency, his critics contend, the Philippines is well on its way to becoming a "province of China".

On the other hand, there are those who dismiss Duterte as all bark but no bite, since he always fell short of undercutting the robust fundamentals of the Philippine-US alliance while failing to secure even a single major defence agreement with China or Russia.

This point of view is shared by some US policymakers as well as some of Duterte's key allies.

Both perspectives carry a grain of truth, yet they miss the complexity of Duterte's strategic calculus.

To begin with, one must understand Duterte's personal psychology. Long accustomed to absolute power in his home town of Davao, where he served as an undisputed Leviathan and lifetime mayor, Duterte developed minimal tolerance for criticism, particularly from foreigners.

Viewing Americans as arrogant and overbearing, he was the only local Filipino official to painstakingly restrict American military presence in his jurisdiction.

Even when his home island of Mindanao turned into the "second front" in the global war on terror, he blocked Americans from using Davao's airbase as well as conducting large-scale Balikatan joint exercises in his backyard.

There is also the element of ideology. As a protege of Jose Maria Sison, the founder of the modern Philippine communist movement, as well as a lifetime friend of Moro nationalist Nur Misuari, Duterte has been steeped in a thoroughly anti-American worldview.

For the Filipino populist, who came of age during the Vietnam War years, the US is an imperialist power which has shown little respect for the sovereignty of smaller nations.

Little wonder then that he has not shied away from publicly insulting any American official who dares to criticise his human rights record and style of governance.

For him, the US is both hypocritical and intrusive.

At the same time, however, the former Davao mayor is a consummate Machiavellian, who has won all elections by a landslide thanks to a keen awareness of the political landscape. It is one thing to rule like a king in Davao, but it is another to become the Philippine President overseeing a diverse and chaotic system.

Throughout his presidency, Duterte has shown great sensitivity to the views of the Philippine defence establishment, from generals and officers to veteran diplomats and senior Cabinet members, who are deeply invested in the country's alliance with the US.

The majority of Filipino defence and foreign policy elite were trained in the US, have relatives and family members there, and view the Philippine-US alliance as a vital element of national security.

Suspicion towards China runs deep among both the Filipino elite and the broader masses.

On multiple occasions, Duterte admitted his fears of being "ousted" were he to completely ignore the defence establishment, which has reined in the President's worst instincts and opposed or watered down questionable decisions and agreements, especially with China.

Things came to a head, however, when the US imposed travel restrictions on Duterte's inner circle, including former police chief and current Senator Ronald dela Rosa, who has been accused of widespread human rights violations. All of a sudden, the prospect of sanctions against Duterte himself and other key allies became probable.

In response, Duterte lashed out at the US for being "disrespectful" (bastos eh) and warned "no more bases" unless "they start to talk to us" on possible sanctions relief. Failing to secure any concessions, he not only imposed retaliatory travel restrictions against several American politicians, but also unilaterally initiated the termination of the VFA in February.

The costs of termination

The upshot was the potential disruption of more than a hundred joint military activities this year alone, and a paralysis in overall bilateral security cooperation.

After all, the VFA provides the legal framework for en masse entry of American soldiers and their rotational access to key bases across the Philippines. As the Philippines' Justice Secretary warned, the termination of the defence deal would render the alliance as practically "useless".

The VFA termination was expected to be finalised by August following a 180-day process of abrogation.

Earlier this month, however, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr announced that upon "the President's instruction", the termination process will be suspended for the foreseeable future.

Initially, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs vaguely cited "political and other developments in the region" as a basis for the dramatic policy turnabout. Soon, however, Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez clarified that "quite a number of things that are happening right now in the South China Sea" may have forced Duterte's hands.

Not only is the VFA crucial to large-scale cooperation against the threat of terrorism and humanitarian crisis amid the Covid-19 pandemic, but it is also a latent deterrence to all-out Chinese encroachment within Philippine waters.

Since March, China has stepped up its naval exercises as well as paramilitary and coast guard deployments across the South China Sea. Not only has it declared two new "administrative regions" cutting across the disputed waters, but it has also sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat and harassed Malaysia's oil exploration activities in the area.

Alarmed by such brazen aggression, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs issued a "statement of solidarity" with Vietnam following the sinking of the Vietnamese boat by Chinese forces, while the Philippine military establishment condemned a Chinese warship's "unprovoked" and "very hostile" pointing of a "radar gun" on a Philippine frigate earlier this year.

To fortify its position on the ground, Philippine Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana, a former defence attache in Washington, made a high-profile visit to the Spratlys, where he inaugurated a new beaching ramp on Thitu Island and announced unprecedented efforts to repair and expand the Philippines' civilian and military facilities in the area.

Duterte may have sought to reduce his country's dependence on the US and forge closer ties with China. Yet, China's troubling push to assert its claims in the South China Sea amid a global pandemic has not made this easy for even its most enthusiastic supporters in the region.

In short, at a time of great uncertainty, Duterte the canny politician and self-proclaimed nationalist has chosen to fall back on the certainty of a century-old alliance. – Philippine Daily Inquirer

Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and columnist at the Philippine Daily Inquirer. The Asian Editors Circle is a series of commentaries by Asia News Network editors and contributors.

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