Philippines reaching back to US as Duterte fades away

By Richard Javad Heydarian

“America has lost now,” declared Philippine President Duterte just months after assuming office in 2016 and having chosen to visit Beijing for his first major foreign trip.

“I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to [President Vladimir] Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world – China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way,” the Filipino populist added in the Great Hall of the People, with no less than Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli in attendance.

Days later, during a visit to Tokyo, Duterte upped the ante by announcing his preference for booting out all American troops stationed in the Philippines within his first two years in power.

“I want, maybe in the next two years, my country free of the presence of foreign military troops,” declared the Filipino president ahead of a summit with then-Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, a staunch US military ally.

In 2020, Duterte came closest to fulfilling his early threats after unilaterally suspending the Philippine-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which facilitates large-scale joint military drills, amid disagreements on human rights issues with Washington.

But as the Filipino populist enters his twilight months in office, Philippine-US military cooperation seems stronger than ever while Duterte’s years-long strategic flirtation with both Russia and China has produced more disappointment than concrete achievements.

In the coming days, the Philippines and US are set to conduct their largest “Balikatan” (shoulder-to-shoulder) joint military drills in recent memory. Close to 9,000 troops from both the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the US military are set to conduct war games from March 28 to April 8 in the northern island of Luzon, the seat of power and economic hub of the Philippines.

If anything, this year is expected to see the AFP conducting more than 300 joint military activities with its American counterparts, more than any other ally or strategic partner in the entire Indo-Pacific. Ahead of the May 9, 2022, presidential election, the Pentagon and the Philippine defense establishment seem intent on setting the tone for robust military cooperation under whoever becomes the next Filipino president.

The US Embassy in Manila, which has been bereft of an ambassador throughout the pandemic, billed the forthcoming exercises as the “largest-ever iteration” of the joint military exercises as the two allies celebrate the 75th anniversary of US-Philippine security cooperation.

Under Duterte, the Balikatan exercises were twice canceled, first in 2016, as he tried to build strategic bridges with China and Russia, and again in 2020 amid the China-originated Covid-19 pandemic, which disrupted US military operations across the Indo-Pacific. But last October, the AFP announced that joint military exercises will be back in full scale in 2022, along with more than 300 other scheduled joint activities with the Pentagon.

Crucially, the upcoming Balikatan exercises will feature for the first time in years more US military personnel (5,100) than Filipino forces (3,800). The two sides are expected to focus on “maritime security, amphibious operations, live-fire training, urban operations, aviation operations, counterterrorism, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” according to the US Embassy in Manila.

To enhance interoperability, the two mutual defense treaty (MDT) allies are also scheduled to conduct a command post exercise which “tests the two militaries’ ability to plan, command, and communicate with each other in a simulated environment. This training will bolster the collective security and defensive capabilities of the alliance,” the US Embassy said.

US Chargé d’Affaires ad interim Heather Variava described the massive exercises as “a critical opportunity to work shoulder-to-shoulder with our Philippine allies toward a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific that is more connected, prosperous, secure, and resilient,’ as our Indo-Pacific Strategy calls for.”

Major General Jay Bargeron, US 3rd Marine Division Commanding General, hailed the upcoming Balikatan as a chance for both allies to “train together to expand and advance shared tactics, techniques, and procedures that strengthen our response capabilities and readiness for real-world challenges.”

“Our alliance remains a key source of strength and stability in the Indo-Pacific region,” the US general added.

For his part, Major General Charlton Sean Gaerlan, the AFP Exercise Director for Balikatan 22, was similarly effusive about the Balikatan exercises, describing them as “a testament to the strength of the Philippines and United States’ security relationship.”

“The experience gained in the exercise complements our security cooperation endeavors and will help to enhance existing mutual security efforts,” the Filipino general added.

The steady and robust revival of Philippine-US military cooperation has coincided with manifold challenges bedeviling Duterte’s pivot to China and Russia. Despite its promise of as much as $26 billion in large-scale investments, China has yet to finalize a single big-ticket infrastructure investment project during Duterte’s nearly finished tenure.

In the South China Sea, meanwhile, the Asian powerhouse pressed ahead with fully militarizing disputed islands as well as unleashing an armada of paramilitary vessels, which have been harassing Philippine troops and fishermen across the disputed areas, most dramatically in the Reed Bank and Whitsun Reef.

In response, even Duterte called out Beijing’s actions during the ASEAN-China Summit last year, where the Filipino president chastised his ally for aggressive activities that do “not speak well of the relations between our nations and our partnership.”

By and large, the Filipino public has also been highly distrustful of China. According to the Social Weather Stations (SWS) polling agency, China’s net trust rating in 2019 reached a low of -33% compared to 72% for the US.

Based on a preliminary survey, which the author and his colleagues at the National Defense College of the Philippines conducted in 2018, the vast majority of next-generation military officers in the AFP also expressed similar views towards the two superpowers.

In short, both the Philippine public and defense establishment have been largely skeptical of China, while recognizing the value of robust defense cooperation with the US.

Meanwhile, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has torpedoed its burgeoning defense cooperation with key Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines. Early in office, Duterte described the Russian leader as his “favorite hero”, welcoming large-scale defense cooperation in a bid to lessen his country’s dependence on the US.

The imposition of a new barrage of Western sanctions, however, has thrown the future of Philippine-Russian defense cooperation into doubt. It’s highly unlikely that the US will grant its Southeast Asian ally any waivers from tightening sanctions on Russia’s defense sector under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

With Russia increasingly isolated, Duterte has accordingly changed tone, recently describing Putin as “suicidal”, while offering Philippine bases to the US in the event of an all-out global conflict between the two superpowers.

“[Duterte] was very clear that – if push comes to shove – the Philippines will be ready to be part of the effort, especially if this Ukrainian crisis spills over to the Asian region,” Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose Manuel Romualdez told reporters in Manila during an online forum.

“He offered that the Philippines will be ready to open its doors, especially to our ally the US in using our facilities, any facilities they may need,” the influential diplomat, who is widely seen as a top contender to become the next Philippine foreign affairs secretary, added.

Although Russia has no direct territorial disputes with the Philippines, and bilateral trade and investment relations have been hampered by Western sanctions, its trust rating among ordinary Filipinos has been largely at par with China’s.

By all indications, the Philippines, after years of mostly fruitless strategic flirtation with Beijing and Moscow, is now closing ranks with the US as Duterte fades from the scene. (AsiaTimes)

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at @Richeydarian