Any pivot in a nation’s long standing foreign policy is difficult for clear internal reasons. Beyond this, such moves to transform a nation’s geopolitical outlook can typically raise ire within the political class of a partner nation that perceives (rightly or wrongly) that its once strong relations with a bilateral partner have been downgraded. And yet, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has managed to radically re-align his nation’s foreign policy priorities and has made new friends in the process. Crucially, while speaking about changing relations with long standing partners from a position of strength, he has not alienated the old for the sake of the new.
Specifically, Duterte has continually slammed the “colonial mentality” that has seen successive Filipino leaders from all political parties play a submissive role before the former colonial ruler of the country, the United States. Simultaneous to this, Duterte’s growing relations with partners ranging from China and Russia to Turkey, India, Japan, Korea and fellow ASEAN members with whom The Philippines once had disputes, is testament to the fact that balance and justified national self-interest rather than ideology lies behind Duterte’s win-win model for the modern foreign relations of The Philippines.
Not long after the US returned the stolen Balangiga Bells to their indigenous habitat in The Philippines, American Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim said the following regarding Washington’s position on Manila’s growing relations with Beijing:
“And the fact that the Philippines is interested in improving relations with China also is not surprising and it is not by itself a cause of concern. I am quite confident that our relationship in all aspects including, of course, our very strong alliance remains very much intact”.
Sung Kim further stated that it is his view (and likely the view of the White House in this case) that Duterte’s warm relations with China are a product of Duterte’s desire to seek the best economic opportunities for his people rather than an attempt to turn The Philippines into a nation with a negative relationship with Washington. In this sense, Sung Kim has articulated the truth from an unusually modest position for a contemporary American diplomat. The fact that he has done so is itself symptomatic of Duterte’s strong ability to articulate his own position which is one that seeks peace with all, economic opportunities from partnerships with all and hostility towards none.
Among Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s many justifications for embracing cooperative initiatives with China in the South China Sea and in so doing reversing the hostile policies of his predecessors, was the fact that Duterte is well aware and has articulated that as a comparatively weak military power, the Filipino people would only suffer as a result of a war with China that President Duterte called a “suicide mission”. Duterte is also aware that in a changing multipolar world it is beneficial for The Philippines to have warm relations with the Chinese and Russian superpowers while also shifting relations with the US from those dominated by what Duterte calls “the colonial mentality” to those based on mutual respect.
While much of the US Congress has failed to show any respect for Duterte’s government and while the Pentagon chastised The Philippines for its no strings attached arms deals with a willing Russian partner, when it comes to Donald Trump, Duterte has described him as a politically astute “friend” while Trump has praised Duterte’s stance on narcotics, a stance which Trump seeks to take domestically in order to tackle America’s own dangerous drug problem.
One of the points of continuity between the first years of formal Philippine independence after 1946, the Marcos era of 1965-1986 and the present constitutional era starting in 1987 has been the fact that all Philippine leaders tended to prioritise relations with the United States above all other partners, including nearby Asian nations. This dramatically changed when Duterte was elected in 2016. While many blamed Duterte’s initial criticisms of the United States on the fact that Duterte held and continues to hold a low opinion of Barack Obama, under the Trump presidency, Duterte continues to pursue win-win partnerships throughout Asia while Duterte’s foreign visits have taken him to multiple ASEAN nations, to China, South Korea, Japan, India, Russia, multiple Middle Eastern nations and South America but not once has Duterte visited a European or North American nation.
While Duterte has accused the CIA of seeking his removal from office and with the so-called “Red October” plot to oust Duterte having been exposed and crushed before it could get off the ground, the highly popular Philippine President looks secure in his job even though it goes without saying that America has in the past overthrown multiple popular presidents throughout the world. Indeed, Ninoy Aquino’s close relationship with the CIA and Ferdinand Marcos’s growing independent streak may well have been one of the reasons why the US did nothing to aid its old friend Marcos in the mid 1980s. US strategists rightly assumed that a weakened presidency of Cory Aquino would be and in fact was closer to Washington than even that of Marcos.
But Duterte has not once compromised on his position of non-alignment and has indeed seen his model of 21st century non-alignment become the rule rather than the exception throughout ASEAN. And yet there is a wild card that has allowed Duterte to stick to his principles without paying the prince that many other independent leaders in nations formerly subservient to the United States have paid.
Of all the nations of Asia, none is more intimately familiar with American culture than The Philippines. Multiple cover bands playing American pop and rock music in The Philippines ironically saw vocalist Arnel Pineda join the American rock band Journey whose music he was previously singing with local Filipino musicians. Likewise, the popularity of basketball in The Philippines is also largely due to historic connections with American culture. These are but two examples of the cultural ties between the former colony and the former coloniser.
This combined with the fact that millions of Americans are either fully or partly Filipino in origin has meant that in spite of Duterte’s geopolitical non-alignment, connections at a human level between The Philippines and the United States remain. While this might make even the most anti-Duterte American political leader think twice about throwing this good will into the sewer in order to foment regime change, when in the 1980s one pro-American leader was substituted for an even more pro-American leader, Washington did not think twice.
In spite of this, Donald Trump has clearly thought twice before judging Duterte by the standards of his predecessors. For all of the anti-Duterte rhetoric coming from the US Congress, CIA documents, parts of the Pentagon and all of the US corporate media, Trump has never said anything negative about Duterte. For all of his faults and virtues, one of Donald Trump’s key virtues is that he has restored the human element to the White House. While Trump’s policies are highly strategic (even when strategically counter-productive as is the case with his multiple trade wars), Trump has also placed great emphasis on his ability to develop a personal understanding with multiple world leaders. This helps explain why the unlikely partnership of Donald Trump and his former nemesis Kim Jong-un has developed so rapidly while Trump has little time for neo-liberal wannabe technocrats like Angela Merkel.
In the case of The Philippines, Trump must be aware that due to the colonial experience, Filipinos could hate America and American culture but on the whole the exact opposite is true. It is also true that an overwhelming majority of Filipinos in The Philippines as well as OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) love President Duterte.
Thus, a win-win situation has developed wherein Duterte has ended decades of subservience to the US while many of Duterte’s supporters seek to transition away from a US style presidential/congressional system to a federal-parliamentary one that is more similar to Singapore. Yet even as The Philippines stands on the cusp of profound constitutional change, the love of rock groups like Journey and of basketball will almost certainly remain. For some American zealots this would not be enough, but thus far Donald Trump is content to let The Philippines be. This unusual act of restraint on Trump’s part is a credit to President Duterte’s ability to communicate the realities of The Philippines to a US leader who like Duterte tends to speak openly rather than in the cloak and dagger style of the predecessors of both men in their respective nations. In this sense, Duterte has been able to do what no previous modern Filipino leader has come close to doing – he has won hearts and minds in China, the United States and many other powerful countries simultaneously.