Southeast Asia from Scott Circle: Taking Stock of the Alliance as the Philippines Prepares for Trump
December 1, 2016
Despite months of anti-American rhetoric and threats from Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte to undermine the alliance, cooperation between the United States and the Philippines remains surprisingly strong. The defense relationship has borne the brunt of the fallout, which so far has been limited to a reduction in military exercises.
Given the extent of Duterte’s threats, this should be seen as a victory for the patient approach of the outgoing Obama administration. Key agreements and relationships remain in place for an alliance reset under the incoming Donald Trump administration, but there are reasons to be skeptical about whether the relationship can be put back on an upward trajectory.
The reported downgrade in the defense relationship is restrained in comparison with Duterte’s threats to “separate” from the U.S. alliance, end joint exercises, and remove U.S. troops from the Philippines. The cancellation of Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) and the Philippines Amphibious Landing Exercise (PHIBLEX) is a blow to efforts to build capacity in the Philippine Navy and Marine Corps.
However, the preservation of the flagship Exercise Balikatan—even in a scaled-back form—will allow continued contact and cooperation between the U.S. Pacific Command, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and multilateral partners like the Australian military. Key U.S.-Philippine defense agreements like the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement and the Mutual Defense Treaty remain intact. Rotational U.S. deployments to the Philippines, such as the counterterrorism support mission in the southern Philippines, seem unaffected. Things could easily have been much worse, and the decision to reduce the joint exercise schedule can be revisited in the future.
Duterte’s outreach to China is also not a blow to U.S. strategy in Asia, as it is often depicted. While Duterte seems too willing to undermine the Philippines’ key U.S. alliance and ignore his country’s legal victory on the South China Sea at The Hague in exchange for promises of future Chinese cooperation and investment, it is ultimately good for all parties if Manila and Beijing can agree to manage contentious issues such as the Scarborough Shoal peacefully and constructively. The U.S.-Philippine relationship is robust enough to weather some short-term disruption as Duterte attempts to chart a more “independent” foreign policy.
If Duterte’s attacks on the alliance have been part of a plan to create diplomatic space for his rapprochement with China, one might expect a follow-on effort to repair the damage after the next U.S. administration takes office. Indeed, there have been hopeful noises from Manila regarding a reset of relations with president-elect Trump. Duterte spoke well of Trump following the U.S. election, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay suggested that Duterte and Trump are temperamentally suited to work together, and Trump’s Manila business partner, Jose E. B. Antonio, has been named the Philippines’ special trade envoy to Washington. These signals are promising and hopefully will be followed by a concerted effort to improve ties, but there are reasons to believe that the downward trend in relations could continue after Trump takes office.
It will likely prove difficult for Duterte to back away from the fiery anti-American rhetoric that has been a hallmark of his administration. While his actions can be explained in part by diplomatic calculation, they also seem driven by his hostility to criticism and a personal animus toward the United States. At the very least, Duterte likely will continue to lash out at U.S. critics of his drug war and the extrajudicial killings used to prosecute it. The Obama administration’s bemused resignation to Duterte’s attacks on America is unlikely to continue under the next administration, and Trump may be inclined to fire back at any insults from Duterte. Similar temperaments may not be a recipe for harmony in this relationship.
Criticism in Washington of Duterte and his drug war will continue, even if he and Trump manage to get along. Duterte may believe that the inauguration of Trump—who "has not meddled in human rights," according to the Philippine president—will remove extrajudicial killings as a point of contention in the relationship, but that is not how the U.S. system works. Congress is a coequal branch of government and controls the power of the purse, making congressional support vital for the continuation of U.S. aid and capacity-building programs in the Philippines.
The State Department’s recent halt of a U.S. rifle sale to the Philippine National Police in response to congressional opposition is unlikely to be an isolated incident if the Philippine drug war continues. Further damage to the defense relationship is still possible if the Philippine military gets involved in the drug war or overall perceptions of the Philippines in Washington decline, jeopardizing future funding for Foreign Military Financing, the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative, and military construction projects in the Philippines.
While the onus will remain on Duterte to moderate his behavior and policies to preserve good relations, he may also have to adapt to deal with a more demanding partner. It is still too early to predict what Trump’s foreign policy will look like, but it seems plausible that the president-elect’s skepticism about alliances was not just campaign rhetoric. Duterte so far has undertaken his diplomatic maneuvering and attacks on the alliance while dealing with an administration that values the U.S. alliance system and is predisposed to reassure even troublesome allies.
What will Trump, who questioned the contributions of firm Asian allies like Japan and South Korea, make of the Philippines? Duterte, if he does not seriously desire an end to the alliance, may soon find himself in the unfamiliar position of having to defend the value of the alliance to the United States rather than the other way around.
While concerns about the future of the U.S.-Philippines alliance remain warranted, there is no need for undue pessimism. The relationship has weathered Duterte surprisingly well so far. Perhaps relations under Trump will surprise us as well.
Geoffrey Hartman is a fellow with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.
Duterte proposes marine sanctuary at Scarborough Shoal
In an effort to ease tensions with China, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte proposed an executive order that would ban fishing in the lagoon of Scarborough Shoal, a move that angered Filipino fishermen. Duterte discussed the proposed marine sanctuary in a meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Peru in late November. Since taking control of the shoal in 2012, China has barred Philippine access to the lagoon. Beijing has not indicated whether Xi has backed Duterte’s proposal.
Fighting in Myanmar’s Shan State escalates as thousands flee to China
Four armed ethnic groups—the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Kachin Independence Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and Arakan Army—on November 20 attacked military outposts in the Myanmar-China border region, prompting retaliation from the Myanmar military. Residents in the northeast Shan State towns of Muse and Kutkai fled to China to escape the violence. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi confirmed that about 3,000 refugees crossed the border into China.
Hero’s burial for Marcos sparks controversy
The Marcos family held a private memorial service on November 18 for former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was buried with full military honors at Metro Manila’s Heroes’ Cemetery, the Philippine equivalent of Arlington Cemetery. President Rodrigo Duterte approved the burial and said that Marcos, as a former head of state and a military veteran, met the criteria for burial at the cemetery. Widespread protests followed the burial, and an appeal was filed on November 28 seeking to reverse the Supreme Court’s decision allowing the burial.
Jakarta governor under police investigation on blasphemy charges
Conservative Muslim groups in Indonesia have staged several protests calling for the arrest of Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama for blasphemy related to comments he made about the Quran. The largest of these protests brought Jakarta to a standstill on November 4. In response, the Indonesian national police officially named Purnama, who is an ethnic Chinese Christian, a suspect on blasphemy charges. The Attorney General’s Office has taken over the investigation and promises to bring the case swiftly to court, where Purnama is reportedly looking forward to clearing his name.
Malaysia protest proceeds peacefully despite arrest of leadership
Fifteen activists and opposition politicians were arrested ahead of a November 19 protest in Kuala Lumpur organized by Bersih, a coalition of Malaysian nongovernment organizations dedicated to combating government corruption. Despite the arrests, the protest, which called for the resignation of Prime Minster Najib Razak for his alleged role in the diversion of funds from state fund 1 Malaysia Development Berhad, attracted 50,000-100,000 participants. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of assembly and association criticized the arrests as counterproductive. Bersih chairwoman Maria Chin Abdullah was released on November 28 after 11 days in detention.
Duterte mulls withdrawal from International Criminal Court
Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte said on November 17 that he may follow Russian president Vladimir Putin’s example and withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC). Many suspect that Duterte’s threat is a response to international criticism of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines related to his war on drugs. Duterte has cited bias within the ICC as one reason he may elect to withdraw. The United Nations reported it has not yet received an application from the Philippines to withdraw from the ICC.
Cambodian court upholds conviction of former Khmer Rouge leaders
The UN-backed Supreme Court Chamber in Cambodia rejected the appeal of Nuon Chea, 90, and Khieu Samphan, 85, two powerful leaders of the Khmer Rouge under whose rule up to 2 million people died from execution and starvation before the movement was toppled in 1979. The pair, found guilty in August 2014 by the Khmer Rouge tribunal for crimes against humanity, murder, and political persecution, had their life sentences upheld. Their appeal accused the court of granting an unfair trial due to procedural errors stemming from inconsistency in witness testimony and the judges’ failure to remain impartial.
Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi postpones Indonesia trip following protests over treatment of Rohingya
Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, postponed a visit to Indonesia due to begin November 30 following protests in Jakarta over violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s northwest. Hundreds of protestors took to the streets of Jakarta on November 25 calling on the government of Indonesia, a majority Muslim country, to cut diplomatic relations with Myanmar. Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak is scheduled to join other political leaders at a rally in Kuala Lumpur on December 4 protesting the violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar.
Thai crown prince invited to succeed the Thai throne
The National Legislative Assembly on November 28 invited Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn to succeed to the throne as the next Thai monarch. Vajiralongkorn will next meet with the assembly chairman to formally accept the invitation. Vajiralongkorn—the designated heir apparent since 1972—will be called Rama X, the tenth king of the Chakri dynasty. The succession precedes a public holiday celebrating the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej ’s birth on December 5. The coronation is likely to take place sometime in late 2017 or early 2018 following the late king’s cremation.
China protests Singapore’s military ties with Taiwan
Nine Singaporean armored personnel carriers were seized on November 23 by customs authorities in Hong Kong as they were being shipped back to Singapore from Taiwan after joint military exercises. China called on Singapore to respect the one-China principle, which forbids countries that have diplomatic ties with China from having any official contact with Taiwan. Singapore established diplomatic relations with China in 1990 but has had military ties with Taiwan since the 1970s.
Parallels between Identity Politics in Southeast Asia & the United States
by Lance Jackson
Identity is often an explicit factor in the politics of many Southeast Asian nations, whether it is the rural-urban divide in Thailand, language in Malaysia or ethnicity in Indonesia. Appeals to identity for political purposes have generally been more restrained in the United States, but were far more overt in the last presidential election…Read more>>>
Marcos Heroes Cemetery Burial in the Philippines Highlights Deep Social Rifts
by Victor Andres “Dindo” Manhit
Thirty years after Ferdinand Marcos was ousted by Filipinos in the popular People Power Revolution the former president’s burial at the Heroes Cemetery has triggered national outrage and street protests. Sharply critical views have appeared in social and print media, reflecting many Filipinos’ indignation that a dictator, who plundered the wealth of the country and left the nation in social ruins, could be immortalized in this way…Read more>>>
The Future of Trade Requires Inclusive Growth
by Victor Andres “Dindo” Manhit
President Rodrigo Duterte is on his way to Peru for his first trip to an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ summit. Just before leaving Manila, Duterte said that he would spend his time in Peru promoting the Philippine economy and his 10-point socio-economic agenda, highlighting that “the Philippines is open for business.”…Read more>>>
Photo credit: Wu Hong-Pool/Getty Images