TSG IntelBrief: The Shifting U.S.-Philippines Strategic Relationship
September 15, 2016

The Shifting U.S.-Philippines Strategic Relationship

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• Recent statements by Filipino President Duterte undermine U.S.-Philippines military relations, even if they have not yet resulted in official changes in policy.

• On September 10, Duterte requested the removal of U.S. military advisors from the Philippines.

• Two days later, Duterte announced new military relations with China and Russia, marking a clear shift away from previous alignments to counter Chinese expansion in the South China Sea.

• Shifting relationships by some U.S. partners are trending towards depolarization, as historic alliances are jeopardized for the sake of regional or domestic priorities.

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The future of U.S.-Philippines military cooperation is growing tenuous, as rhetoric by Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte indicates he is shifting the country away from the historic relationship. The Philippines plays a vital role in a variety of U.S. interests in Southeast Asia, including counterterrorism and the South China Sea dispute. Duterte’s criticism of the U.S.—including a personal insult leveled at President Obama at the 2016 ASEAN Summit—has been dismissed as political bluster. However, Duterte’s comments suggest the departure of the Philippines from these bilateral priorities, foreshadowing a significant geopolitical shift.

Prior to his election to the Filipino presidency in June 2016, populist candidate Duterte called for a refocusing of government efforts on domestic, rather than foreign policy concerns. With his emphasis on a no-tolerance campaign against drug trafficking and terrorism—which according to the Wall Street Journal has resulted in nearly 3,000 casualties—Duterte has bolstered his reputation as a domestic strongman, and earned criticism from the international community over alleged human rights abuses. Duterte’s most recent statements show that he is willing to pursue his own objectives, even when they conflict with U.S. interests.

Last week, Duterte called for the removal of U.S. military advisors in the Philippines, who have been supporting counterterrorism operations in the country since 2001. Most recently, U.S. advisors have focused on supporting the Filipino military’s efforts to combat the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), which is based in the southwestern part of the country and is affiliated with the so-called Islamic State. Citing concerns over the safety of the U.S. forces, Duterte effectively dismissed U.S. advisors as a burden, despite decades of counterterrorism assistance. The dismissal of U.S. military personnel—if implemented—could be indicative of growing tension surrounding Duterte’s heavy-handed methods, which have already been applied to the counter-trafficking campaign. Either way, since most U.S. operations against ASG ended in 2015, the removal of advisors would be primarily symbolic.

Abu Sayyaf has been operating in the Philippines since 1991, initially receiving direct support from al-Qaeda until pledging allegiance to the Islamic State in the summer of 2014. ASG’s pledge of support for Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi raised significant concerns about the growing traction of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, ASG has been generally in decline, today numbering around only a few hundred members. The Filipino military campaign against the group has intensified in recent weeks in response to the September 2 bombing in Davao, which killed at least 14 people.

Beyond counterterrorism cooperation, a downgrade in cooperation is foreseeable in U.S.-Philippines efforts to confront Chinese expansion in the South China Sea. Tensions between China and the Philippines escalated in mid-2012 over territorial disputes, prompting an increase in U.S. naval operations and military aid over the last few years. Under Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino, challenging Chinese claims to the strategic reefs was a critical motivation for closer alignment with the U.S. 

On September 13, however, Duterte announced pending deals with China and Russia to receive military equipment for countering drug-trafficking and terrorism. Citing his preference for an ‘independent foreign policy’, Duterte emphasized the importance of domestic security issues. For Duterte, the enormous economic and strategic value of the South China Sea  has taken a back seat to these domestic security considerations, as it appears he would rather cooperate with regional actors that can help deliver his campaign promises than participate in geopolitical standoffs. Thus, priorities adapt to the new threat environment, even at the expense of long-term patronage. As global actors seek to influence regional security disputes through the distribution of military aid, their preferences remain subject to the often transient forces operating on the ground.

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