Dr Steven Rood
On 3 March 2017, the US Department of State released its 2016 Human Rights Report, which unsurprisingly critiqued the large number of deaths involved in the current ‘war on drugs’ unleashed by Philippine President Rodrigo Roa Duterte. What is perhaps surprising is that, unlike his reaction to previous criticisms of the war on drugs or proposals to reinstate the death penalty, this report drew no profane invective from President Duterte.
In contrast, on 19 March he addressed the European Union (helpfully, “I’ll speak in English”):
Why are you trying to impose on us? Why don’t you mind your own business? Why do you have to f**k with us?”
This after the European Parliament expressed its concern over the drug war, the proposal to reinstate the death penalty and the arrest of Senator Leila Delima, a long-time critic of Duterte (going back to allegations about a Davao death squad when he was mayor of that city).
Perhaps the reason why Duterte did not respond is because the new Trump administration has not actively been confronting him with views on human rights in the Philippines. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson broke with tradition and did not attend the launch of the State Department’s own report.
During his January confirmation hearing before the United States Senate, Tillerson declined to condemn deaths in Duterte’s war on drugs, saying he’d need further “facts from the ground” before commenting.
In fact, President Duterte has reported that during his 2 December phone conversation with President-elect Donald Trump, the American leader endorsed his approach: “You’re doing it right; keep it up!” As part of his business relations with the Philippines, Trump has stated “I’ve always loved the Philippines.”
That the two men have similar transgressive (Pippa Norris's word) styles has been often noted, though whether they would get along should they find themselves in the same room is open to speculation. Certainly though, President Duterte has used the occasion of Trump’s accession to office to take a tone quite different from his statement in July that he was breaking all relations with the United States. However, Duterte has approached this in his own way – which may be quite compatible with how Donald Trump approaches things.
For instance, the Philippines does not have an ambassador to the United States and there is currently no prospective nominee. Instead, Trump’s business partner in the Philippines, Jose E B Antonio, was named as a ‘special envoy’ to enhance business and economic ties. Interestingly enough, the appointment was made on 28 October, before Trump was elected.
As we look at Philippine-American relations under Duterte after the election of President Trump, we can see how far Duterte has walked back from his statement made in a speech in October in China, “I announce my separation from the United States both in the military… not social but economic also.” Perhaps this was meant to be taken seriously but not literally, as within days he clarified he was advocating a “separation of foreign policy” rather than “a severance of ties.” By March he was saying:
“President Trump and I are okay and I can assure him also of our friendship and cooperation. We have no problem there… under the Trump administration, I will give all, whatever it is, short of military alliances.”
On the subject of military alliances, the Philippines has long been a treaty ally of the United States. However, Duterte has said "It’s passé now but it’s there” and in October proclaimed that beginning in 2017, there would be no more military exercises with the United States.
When Secretary of Defense Lorenzana was asked about this during his confirmation hearing, he said, “the President has been issuing statements without consulting the Cabinet.” Lorenzana was given the opportunity to present the advantages of the military exercises, and on that basis the decision was made that a smaller number of exercises will go forward – often focusing more on humanitarian assistance and disaster response.
More generally, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the Philippines and the United States will continue to be implemented instead of being forgotten as stated off-handedly by President Duterte last October.
So, after Donald Trump became President of the United States, relations between the United States and the Philippines seem to be on a much more even keel than anybody could have predicted last October. Duterte seems to be of the ‘strong man’ flavour that Trump likes, and Trump certainly seems the kind of person with whom Duterte can do business.
There are three areas where deals might be struck: maritime disputes in the West Philippine/South China Sea, economic mercantilism by the United States and immigration to the United States.
In the West Philippine/South China Sea, Duterte has famously not utilised the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration that was issued at the beginning of his term. He scoffs at the notion of directly challenging Chinese claims in the area – and has in fact blamed the United States for the situation. Harking back to the 2012 standoff at Scarborough Shoal, he wonders why the United States did not exert force when the Chinese did not withdraw its coastguard vessels at the same time the Philippines did (in a US-brokered agreement). He is well aware that the United States takes no position on sovereignty over features in the sea, and doesn’t expect the United States to be of assistance in asserting Philippine interests in the area.
However, there may be possibilities for change over Scarborough Shoal – both the United States and the Philippines have characterised any Chinese building activities there as a ‘red line’. Defense Secretary Lorenzana related in March that last June there were preparatory signs of activity, but that the United States warned the Chinese off and the activities stopped.
In another sign of Duterte administration engagement with the United States military, Secretary Lorenzana along with Finance Secretary Dominguez and Justice Secretary Aguirre flew with United States Ambassador Sung Kim to the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinzon to observe as it carried out operations in the West Philippine/South China Sea.
Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, who is an expert on the history and issues involving the West Philippines South China Sea, has suggested the Philippines ask the United States to declare that Scarborough Shoal is part of Philippine territory for purposes of the United States–Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (as it does for Japan with respect to the Senkaku islands), since the shoal has been part of Philippine territory even during the American colonial period. He cites correspondence between the Philippines and the United States going back to 1938 – when the Philippines was an American commonwealth – regarding ownership of the shoal.
Given the aggressive tone Trump has on occasion taken with respect to China, this might prove tempting. Still, President Duterte is also worried about being drawn into a dispute between the United States and China and has specifically ruled out joint patrols. At the same time, Chinese aid to the Philippines has begun to flow in response to Duterte’s overtures. In the end, it seems unlikely that Duterte would take this initiative.
On the other two issues, the initiative is with the United States.
While the Philippines is not as exposed to international trade as some other Asian nations, it still remains the case that protectionism in the United States could be worrisome, especially with respect to one of the most vibrant sectors of the economy, outsourcing. Outsourcing brought in US$23 billion in 2016 – and 70 per cent of the locators are American.
The economics are clear – employees in the Philippines cost companies US$19,300 per year as compared to US$91,000 in the United States. President Trump mostly talks about trade in goods, but outsourcing companies in the Philippines are worried that his plan to bring jobs back to America won’t end at just manufacturing but will extend to services.
Trump has in the past talked about a 'five-part tax policy' to include a 15 per cent tax for outsourcing jobs (though no details were provided). Given the powers of the American President with respect to trade issues, there does not seem to be much that the Philippines can do – though the outsourcing companies are hiring lobbyists in Washington.
It is with respect to immigration issues – or from the Philippine viewpoint, Overseas Filipino Workers – that the intersection of the views of Donald Trump and President Duterte might produce the most surprising results. As is well known, the remittances flowing into the Philippines exceed even outsourcing revenues at US$26.9 billion and comprise 9.8 per cent of GDP. One-third of this is from the United States. There are an estimated 3.4 million Filipinos in the United States – unfortunately, some 300,000 to 500,000 of them are undocumented. All Filipinos know about TNT (tago nang tago – always hiding) in the United States. The tough immigration enforcement stance of the Trump administration bids fair to have an impact on remittances. On this issue, President Duterte is consistent in his tough attitude towards law enforcement – he has said he will not lift a finger to
help those caught up in deportation
This tough stance about Filipinos violating laws in other countries is of a piece with Duterte’s assurances to Indonesian President Jokowi that in the case of Mary Jane Veloso, sentenced to death for drug dealing, “Follow your own laws, I will not interfere.” However, this uncompromising stance is unlike previous Philippine government efforts – which are legislatively mandated in the Foreign Service Act, to promote the welfare and interest of Filipinos overseas.
A famous incident in 1995, when Singapore executed Flor Contemplacion for murder, caused ructions in diplomatic relations (including when then-Mayor Duterte burned a Singaporean flag). Harsh treatment of Filipinos overseas is well publicised in the Philippine press, and there is considerable empathy because a very large proportion of families have relatives overseas. In this instance, Duterte’s law-and-order instinct to agree with President Trump could spell political trouble for him in the Philippines.
In short, the election of Trump has helped changed the atmospherics of relations with the Duterte administration in the Philippines, but tough issues remain for the future.