Commentary: Why Duterte wonât rock the boat for Joe Biden
Left photo shows President Rodrigo Duterte during a meeting with the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Emerging Infectious Diseases core members at the Presidential Guest House in Panacan, Davao City on Aug. 10 , 2020. Right photo shows president-elect Joe Biden after speaking during election night at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware, early on Nov. 4, 2020
Presidential photo/Joey Dalumpines and AFP/Angela Weiss

Commentary: Why Duterte won’t rock the boat for Joe Biden

Mark Manantan (Philstar.com) - November 10, 2020 - 3:10pm

Like the rest of the world, the Philippines was on a knife-edge watching the tight race between US President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. But as Biden gradually clinched the much needed 270 electoral college votes, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque declared that the Philippines is ready to work with whoever occupies the seat in the White House—a neutral stance which departed from the previous statement made by President Rodrigo Duterte who personally endorsed the re-election of President Trump.

This conciliatory tone continued to echo on Duterte’s congratulatory remarks for Biden, reinforcing his commitment to work with the new US administration based on “mutual respect, mutual benefit, and shared commitment to democracy, freedom and the rule of law”. 

Despite earning his notoriety in lambasting the US stemming from human rights criticisms and overtures to rescind the US Visiting Forces Agreement, Duterte’s latest statement offer a glimpse of a potential renewal of relationship with the incoming Biden administration. 

However, from the viewpoint of the Philippines, it can be argued that there is more continuity than change in the US-Philippine relations from the Trump-era rather than any radical change.

This observation is already visible in the policy choices adopted by the Duterte government as the country continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic causing a historic economic recession and exacerbated by increasing tensions and uncertainty emanating from the US-China strategic rivalry.

Last April 2020, Trump called Duterte to discuss bilateral cooperation with the Philippines on the COVID-19 response. As of September 2020, the US COVID-19 assistance to the Philippines now totals P1 billion ($22.6 million) which was directed primarily to help local government units in implementing public health crisis management and to support local business recovery. Funding was also injected to increase the testing capacity of the Department of Health and the Philippine National Red Cross.

During his victory speech, Biden made it very clear that aside from healing the division prevailing in his country, restoring America’s global reputation is a fundamental priority. Under Biden, America is thus expected to lead international cooperation for the coronavirus pandemic. Although Biden will prioritize controlling the outbreak first within US borders, he has already stated during the campaign period that his administration will provide disaster assistance and response to countries in dire need. 

Given the existing cooperation, the Duterte government could expect the continuating provision of American aid with the incoming Biden administration not only within the bilateral level but also potentially at the regional or multilateral fora.

Then there is the issue of the Visiting Forces Agreement. For the second time, Duterte suspended anew the process of abrogating the VFA for another six months. The announcement was made a few days before the US Presidential election.

This latest move reaffirms the postponement concerning the revocation process of the VFA filed by Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. last June which was expected to take effect in August. According to the Philippines’ top diplomat, the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing great power contest between the US and China were cited as critical factors driving Duterte’s U-turn in rescinding the VFA.

Amidst Duterte’s perceived pivot to China, doubts and anxiety continue to loom over the credibility of a stronger Sino-Philippine relationship under his administration’s “independent foreign policy”. China’s relentless encroachment in the sovereign waters of the Philippines at the height of the global health crisis, combined with unfulfilled Chinese investments, and public outcry over Beijing’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic became inflection points in the bilateral relations.

Throughout the pandemic, the US-Philippines alliance was an indispensable source of “deterrence” as tensions precipitate in the South China Sea. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana stated that the US government’s assistance will increase the Philippines’ defense capacity during the public health crisis.

Canceling the VFA will leave the Philippines’ highly exposed to external threats as the defense budget was realigned to accommodate the country’s COVID-19 response. The budget cuts amounting to P9.4 billion will put five big-ticket items in the defense modernization projects on hold, decreasing the military’s capability to respond in the event of any crisis in the South China Sea.

In 2019, US State Secretary Mike Pompeo gave a verbal commitment that any armed attack in the South China Sea could trigger Article 4 under the mutual defense treaty. Conversely, the Trump administration has recently clarified its position regarding the Philippines’ 2016 arbitral ruling, noting that it unequivocally support its maritime claims based on the landmark award which invalidated Beijing’s nine-dash line. 

According to Philippine Ambassador to the US, Jose Manuel Romualdez, the foreign policy advisers of Biden has committed that the recognition of the arbitral ruling will be sustained. 

In his essay, Biden provided an overview of how he will confront the China challenge by bringing US allies and partners. But rather than Trump’s purely confrontational or competitive approach, Biden sees cooperation on issues where interests converge for the two powers. 

Recognizing the complexity of the challenges posed by China in the international rules-based order, Biden could leverage on the existing policies of the Trump administration under its Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy to repair America’s relationship in Southeast Asia.

The idea of a Biden victory has immediately cast a shadow of skepticism over the future of the US-Philippines relations as human rights serve as a centerpiece for the incoming US administration. Nonetheless, there are concrete signs to remain hopeful. 

In recent months, Duterte has slightly recalibrated his hypersensitivity towards human rights criticisms as his administration prioritizes international support to urgently address the devastation of COVID-19 to the economy and mitigate the growing insecurity in the West Philippine Sea. Ambassador Romualdez already downplayed any doubts that the relationship will not prosper, claiming that Duterte will have a “good cordial relationship” with the former vice president.

As the global pandemic ravages, a recent survey revealed that the majority of Filipinos continue to favor a strong relationship with the US over China. With nearly two years in power, Duterte is scrambling to leave a legacy which is now gradually being defined by his government’s underperformance in combatting the coronavirus pandemic and the unraveling of his independent foreign policy. Duterte has to play his cards right, rocking the boat will do more harm than good.


Mark Manantan is the Vasey fellow at the Pacific Forum, and a non-resident fellow at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies in Taipei. He is the founder and strategic director of Bryman media.

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