The Trump administration needs to start asking an important question: What should it do with the Philippines? One of America’s oldest Asia-Pacific allies, as well as its former colony, the Philippines seems to be daily drifting toward China. This was abundantly clear this week as the ASEAN and APEC summits came to a close and President Trump headed home after his 12-day trip to Asia.
On Tuesday, the day Trump left town, the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, raved about China’s willingness to begin talks on establishing a code of conduct for the South China Sea, going so far as to call the Chinese “gracious.”
Gracious, indeed. China has already run roughshod over the half-dozen countries that have claims in the strategically significant waters of the South China Sea, where China has laid claim to an expanded maritime border along its notorious nine-dash line. In recent years, Beijing has been constructing man-made islands in the South China Sea and expanding islands that already exist, equipping them with strategic military bases that include radar sites, aircraft hangers, and runways. Not only would these islands allow China to control some of the world’s busiest international shipping lanes, it would also give Beijing a huge strategic advantage should the United States and China ever go to war.
Beijing’s South China Sea shenanigans are all part and parcel of China’s goal of becoming a regional military powerhouse, ruling over a Chinese sphere of influence that stretches from Japan to Australia. Duterte, in paying homage to the new king in town, is hoping he can somehow appease his way into relative peace with Beijing.
Making Overtures to China
The Philippine leader has made it clear since first running for president that, if elected, he wouldn’t challenge China like his predecessor did, despite a 2016 United Nations tribunal ruling in the Philippines’ favor in a dispute with Beijing over the South China Sea. Now, this “code of conduct” agreement has emerged as a way for Duterte to get a little piece of the pie while letting China take pretty much everything it wants—that is, if China even agrees to any such code, which is unlikely.
Trump offered his deal-making skills to help resolve the simmering conflict over the South China Sea, but it seems dubious whether China and the Philippines will take him up on that offer. America is being squeezed out of the picture.
Duterte’s groveling over the code of conduct isn’t the only sign in recent days that he is trying to appease Beijing. The Philippines signed 14 different deals with China on Wednesday during the first visit from a Chinese premier in a decade. On Wednesday, Duterte also praised the Beijing government for its supposedly timely supply of arms to the Philippines to help put down an Islamist insurgent in the southern city of Marawi at a “critical” moment.
He has made similar claims about Russia’s help in “turn[ing] the tide,” although Russian arms didn’t reach the Philippines until the fighting had ended. He also took the dramatic step of claiming that the very rifle that killed the top Islamic State leader in the region had been supplied by the Chinese.
Never mind the conflicting reports about what kind of weapon was actually used, or that it was above all U.S. arms and support that enabled the Philippines to put down the Islamist insurgency. These statements are an intentional slight against America, which entered the fight early on, a sign of its enduring commitment to the island nation, despite Duterte’s cold-shoulder approach to his country’s long-time ally. What’s more, Duterte made these statements just one day after Trump left the Philippines.
Duterte Is Doing What He Said He Would
None of these latest revelations are really surprising, however. Duterte announced his intention last year to grow closer to China while heralding a “separation” from the United States, a statement he later walked back, saying he only meant that he wanted to pursue a more independent foreign policy. He has also suggested ending military exercises with America. Duterte wants to be free to pivot toward China without entirely losing the United States as an ally and as a trading partner, having his cake and eating it too. So far, that’s exactly what he’s doing.
You can’t entirely blame him. Reorienting toward China is strategically natural for the Philippines given its geography and history. After all, Manila was originally settled by the Spanish in 1571 as a Southeast Asian trading post, specifically trade with India and China.
Trump has been making efforts to court the Philippines and Duterte after the U.S.-Philippines relationship soured under the Obama administration (Duterte called President Obama a “son of a whore” at one point). Trump has even heaped praise on the authoritarian-leaning Duterte, including praising the tactics of Duterte’s brutal drug war, which has included extrajudicial killings.
On his trip to the Philippines earlier this week, Trump and Duterte seemed to get along famously, most likely because the U.S. president didn’t annoy his counterpart by making a stink about those pesky human rights violations and once again flattered him, as Trump is wont to do with authoritarian leaders he visits abroad. The two even enjoyed a laugh together over Duterte’s assertion at a press conference that journalists are spies, in the face of the curiously short life expectancy for Philippine journalists.
So What Should America Do?
Trump seems to think things are going swimmingly, saying earlier this week that the two countries have a “great relationship.” But the reality is that, despite Trump’s efforts at a U.S.-Philippines rapprochement, the Philippines has been making it abundantly clear which global power butters its bread. That leaves the question: What does America do now?
The fact is, we don’t have a lot of good options. The administration can try to aggressively court the Philippines, which is, in effect what Trump has been doing, to little effect. Besides the fact that it’s not working, this approach could damage America’s international reputation, which is already much injured after the past eight years. Obama excelled in chasing after countries that weren’t interested in reciprocating, like a suitor pursuing a woman who has eyes for someone else. All it did was make the United States look desperate and weak.
Instead, America could largely walk away from the alliance. But this would be grossly short-sighted. Duterte is not a ruler in perpetuity and the U.S.-Philippines alliance is much too old and far too important to just give up. But that doesn’t mean the Philippines won’t give up on it first.
For now, it seems America is left to wait out Duterte’s tenure and try in the meantime not to make too much of a spectacle trying to win him over—something that, so far, seems impossible for Trump.