In the last few months, US relations with the Philippines have gone from very good or excellent to bad or terrible.
In early September, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte shocked the US and the world when he called US President Barack Obama a “son of a whore” at a news conference. Duterte was responding in anger to reports that Obama had questioned his war on drugs that had resulted in a number of killings in the past two months. In reaction to the insult, Obama referred to Duterte as a “colorful guy.” He then cancelled a meeting with Duterte.
In early October, Duterte told Obama he could “go to hell” in response to the US refusing to sell certain weapons to the Philippines He added that China and Russia were “willing suppliers.” Later that month, Duterte travelled to China where he was welcomed with full military honors at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, after which he said the two countries had agreed to a “full improvement” in relations.
The Philippines, where public opinion about the US has been 90 percent favorable, reportedly the most favorable of any country in the world, had, it appeared, turned to China to replace the US as its best friend.
Why did this happen? The devil is in the details.
Duterte was elected the new president of the Philippines in May and assumed office in June. He was not like previous presidents; he spoke candidly and directly with an acid tongue, and no doubt reminded Obama of Donald Trump, whom Obama despised.
Duterte was elected president on a populist platform of dealing with the country’s high crime rate among other problems. Being a “man of action,” he pledged to do something about this forthwith. The Philippines prior to Duterte was literally plagued by violent and other crimes — the highest of any country in East Asia. Its murder rate was 8 per 100,000 per year (13 if all homicides were counted). The rate in neighboring Malaysia was 2.6, in Indonesia 0.6 and in Singapore 0.3. Citizens complained of their fear of being victims of crime and even walking the streets. They wanted something done.
Duterte’s aggressive policies — and actions — to reduce crime were very effective. In early August, it was reported the crime rate had fallen by 32 percent; later in the month it was said to have declined by 49 percent.
Duterte was popular for what he did. Both rich and poor applauded him for his accomplishments: the rich for bringing order and safety, the poor for that plus helping them. (When Philippine workers returned from Saudi Arabia where they were let go due to falling oil prices; the President went to meet them and he promised them assistance.)
Duterte also campaigned against Islamic terrorism and took aim at the Al-Qaeda-affiliated group Abu Sayyaf that had been a problem in the Philippines for some time. Duterte immediately promised to “fix” the group after it was reported in August that ISIS fighters had called for Muslims to unite behind the leader of Abu Sayyaf. Duterte declared publicly: “I can be 10 times more brutal than ISIS.” After 14 were killed and 67 injured in an attack in Davao City, Duterte’s hometown, he warned Abu Sayyaf: “I will eat you alive, raw — with vinegar and salt.”
To many observers, Duterte was what Obama was not and Obama looked weak in comparison. Further offending (and belittling) Obama, Duterte said that Obama’s problem was not the Middle East exporting terrorism, but America importing it. Adding even more to the ill feelings, Duterte, in his blunt way of speaking, said about corrupt journalists: “They deserve to die.” He meanwhile encouraged citizens to act against criminals. “Shoot them and I will give you a medal,” he said. All these things grated on Obama’s psyche.
An even bigger blow to Obama’s Asia policy was when Duterte went to China and concluded a basket of 13 bilateral agreements that included pacts on trade, investment, tourism, crime, drug enforcement, and more.
Thus, when the UN reported that there had been 850 extra-judicial killings in the Philippines from May to early August as a consequence of Duterte’s anti-crime and anti-drugs campaign, Obama made it a human rights issue and criticized Duterte for it.
However, Philippine observers noted that Obama had ended the US campaign to promote human rights because it was a tenet of the Bush administration to promote democracy around the world. They also cited Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement when asked about human rights in China, that she could not allow human rights issues to interfere with more important matters. To Filipinos, the Obama administration attacking Duterte amounted to imposing a double standard and it was hypocritical. They saw it as representing a revival of America’s colonial way of thinking.
In any event, Duterte’s hostility toward Obama undercut Washington’s hope of using the Philippines as its primary ally in assailing China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea. This was particularly the case after The Hague court in July ruled against China regarding its claims there and specifically decided in favor of the Philippines. Duterte didn’t accept America’s pitch.
The Obama administration had also expected the ruling (working with the Philippines) to help the US find new allies in East Asia and/or strengthen ties with old friends to support its “pivot to Asia” policy announced in 2011 that had otherwise not met with much success. It was again disappointed.
An even bigger blow to Obama’s Asia policy was when Duterte went to China and concluded a basket of 13 bilateral agreements that included pacts on trade, investment, tourism, crime, drug enforcement, and more. After the visit, it was reported that Duterte had come away from his four-day visit to China with pledges of funds, including investments, worth nearly USD 24 billion. This consisted of USD 9 billion in soft loans and USD 3 billion in credits. Agreements were reached on railroads, ports, energy and mining worth more than USD 11 billion. This was huge.
Duterte told an audience in Beijing at the end of his trip that he wanted to “cut the cord” with the US and “pivot” to China and Russia.
Clearly, the US could not compete with China’s financial clout. Washington had allotted the Philippines USD 188 million in aid for fiscal year 2017 — down from USD 236.8 million in 2015. America also rendered considerable financial help to the Philippines through private investments and remittances from Philippine workers in the US. But the total did not equal China’s offers. Nor did it appear the US could do more given its weak economic growth.
Similarly, Washington was not able to increase its military spending that was needed to make its pivot to Asia work while China’s defense spending was jumping by double digits. Nor could the US compete with China’s ballooning trade ties with countries in the area.
Thus, to Duterte and his countrymen, not unlike many of the other leaders in the region, Asia’s future was with China, not the US.
Given the current situation as well as future trends, it appears unlikely Obama or his successor will be able to restore the very close relationship the US previously had with the Philippines. In fact, they have to hope that what the Philippines has done is not contagious.