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U.S.-Philippine Relations

The relationship with the United States was redefined in the early 1990s, when the United States complied with Philippine demands to vacate various military bases, including the naval base at Subic Bay. The Philippines is working to diversify its security interests away from a singular reliance on the United States. To this end, the Philippines is developing stronger security ties with its ASEAN partners to address internal security concerns and it is establishing a bilateral relationship with China to address security concerns over the territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

The United States and the Philippines have a mutual defense treaty that has been in effect since 1952, but it does not extend to territorial disputes involving the Spratly Islands. US-Philippine relations are based on shared history [not always happy] and commitment to democratic principles, as well as on economic and military ties. The historical and cultural links between the Philippines and the United States remain strong. The Philippines modeled its governmental institutions on those of the United States and continues to share a commitment to democracy and human rights. At the most fundamental level of bilateral relations, human links continue to form a strong bridge between the two countries. There are an estimated four million Americans of Philippine ancestry in the United States, and more than 300,000 American citizens in the Philippines.

The 1999 pact provides for arms sales, intelligence exchanges and discussions on military cooperation. It allows U.S. troops access to Philippine soil for military exercises aimed at regional security and local humanitarian work. Those measures shore up the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. In 2020 Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. announced the country had suspended the announced termination of the agreement. Locsin said in April 2021 that negotiations over the pact were nearly finished. The talks began in February 2021 and coincided with China’s mooring of 220 fishing boats at a reef that Beijing and Manila dispute.

The Philippine government wanted the agreement updated to spell out explicitly that the United States would intervene to help defend outlying islands where Chinese vessels are most likely to appear. Rather than maintain strategic ambiguity -- the practice in the past -- Philippine officials prefer some strategic clarity.

The US Congress has placed conditions upon a portion of US military assistance to the Philippines in order to pressure the Philippine government to hold the perpetrators of extrajudicial executions [EJEs] and political violence accountable. In fiscal years 2008 and 2009, $2 million of some $30 million in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) authorized for the Philippines was withheld because conditions were not satisfied.

In 2010, the penalty was raised to $3 million. The conference report (H.Rept. 112-331, Section 7044(g)) that accompanied H.R. 2055, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2012 (signed into law as P.L. 112-74), extended the conditions for another year, stating, “Of the funds appropriated by this Act under the heading ‘Foreign Military Financing Program’ that are available for assistance for the Philippines, $3,000,000 may not be obligated until the Secretary of State submits to the Committees on Appropriations the report on the Philippines required under such heading in S.Rept. 112-85." The Secretary of State was required to report that: "

  • the Government of the Philippines is taking effective steps to prosecute those responsible for EJEs, sustain the decline in the number of EJEs, and strengthen government institutions working to eliminate EJEs;
  • the Government of the Philippines is implementing a policy of promoting military personnel who demonstrate professionalism and respect for human rights, and is investigating, prosecuting, and punishing military personnel and others who have been credibly alleged to have violated such rights; and
  • the Philippine military, and militias and paramilitary groups under its control, are not engaging in acts of violence or intimidation against journalists or members of legal organizations who advocate for human rights. "

The US is the Philippines only guarantee of security in its relations with China and the South China Sea. And the Philippines is a key strategic position in the center of the Pacific Ocean.

2016-2022 - Rodrigo Duterte

After Rodrigo Duterte assumed the presidency in 2016, he adjusted the foreign policy that leaned toward the United States and had been in place since of the administration of Benigno S. Aquino III. Duterte refocused the policy on domestic economic development and social stability to keep his country from serving as cannon fodder for the United States' strategy of containing China in the Indo-Pacific region.Balancing the relationship with all parties without siding with any particular one of them has become a distinctive feature of the current foreign policy of the Duterte government. In this context, the Philippine government is no longer as enthusiastic about U.S.-Philippine diplomatic relations and frequent military exercises as it was before. President Rodrigo Duterte steered the country’s foreign policy towards a more nationalist narrative, marking a shift from recent Philippine leaders. Under Aquino, the Philippines had forged closer military ties with the United States to deal with the China threat. But Rodrigo Duterte, elected President in 2016, cast doubt on that strategy. He also sought to heal relations with China rather than inflame them by pressing the tribunal's ruling.

Duterte campaigned on a promise that like in his southern Philippine city, he would kill criminals. Human Rights Watch and the Philippine Commission on Human Rights tracked more than 1,400 extrajudicial killings in Davao over a 17-year period through 2015. In profanity-laced speeches Duterte at times taunted human rights adherents to come after him and at other times said ridding the country of criminals would all be done within legal bounds.

In the days following the 09 May 2016 election, Washington was vigilant about any possible human rights violations under the Duterte administration. US law restricts the provision of funds to units of foreign security forces when the Department of State has credible evidence that the unit has committed gross violations of human rights. Agency guidance extends these restrictions to individuals of foreign security forces and requires posts to establish procedures to vet candidates for US sponsored training for possible violations.

The US would take a “wait and see” stance on whether the campaign rhetoric would come to bear and if it did, he said the US would likely make known its grave concern over human rights violations and extrajudicial killings.

Duterte in an August speech responded to US Ambassador to Manila Philip Goldberg’s criticism of his comment about wanting to rape a “beautiful” Australian missionary. “I’m fighting with (US Secretary of State John Kerry’s) ambassador. His gay ambassador, the son of a whore. He pissed me off.”

US President Barack Obama cancelled a planned meeting with Philippines leader Rodrigo Duterte, the White House said 05 September 2016, after his Asian ally launched a foul-mouthed tirade against him. Duterte called Obama a "son of a whore" hours earlier, vowing he would not allow the American leader to lecture him on human rights. "President Obama will not be holding a bilateral meeting with President Duterte of the Philippines this afternoon," National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said.

Obama had been set for a showdown with firebrand Duterte. The pair were scheduled to meet in Laos at a gathering organised by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, an annual event meant to foster harmony that often instead highlights regional rows. However, shortly before flying to the capital Vientiane, Duterte launched a tirade at Obama. "Son of a whore, I will curse you in that forum," Duterte told reporters when asked about Obama's plans to raise concerns over a war on crime in the Philippines that has seen more than 2,400 people killed.

The focus was meant to be on the surprising spat between the two longtime allies that have seen relations plunge under a barrage of foul-mouthed insults from Duterte since he came to office on June 30. Duterte had previously also branded the US ambassador to Manila a "son of a whore" -- a term the acid-tongued former prosecutor commonly uses -- and criticised the US over its own track record of police killings.

"I am not a fan of the Americans … Filipinos should be first before everybody else,” Mr. Duterte told reporters 11 September 2016. “In our relations to the world, the Philippines will pursue an independent foreign policy. I repeat: The Philippines will pursue an independent foreign policy,” Mr. Duterte said.

Further evidence of Duterte's approach came in an address to civil servants 12 September 2016 as the president called for US military advisers to be withdrawn from Southern Mindanao where Philippine troops had been battling Muslim insurgents. US special forces had been in the region to help with countererrorism operations since 2002. Duterte said as “long as we stay with America, we will never have peace in [Mindanao]. We might as well give up.” He said he had long wanted to review foreign policy, but he could not because he “did not want a rift with America. But they have to go,” he said, warning if Americans are seen in the region they will be taken hostage or killed. During the speech, Duterte held aloft photos and accounts of US troops who in 1906 were accused of atrocities against Muslims during a rebellion against American rule.

The photos showed the US soldiers with dead Moro rebels and civilians killed in Jolo in 1906 during the Filipino-American war. ”It is a lingering skeleton which in a sense, removes the moral ascendancy of those who criticizes the Philippines regarding the human rights killings. So in a sense, what I’m saying is this skeleton in the closet erodes the moral ascendancy of anybody who has not sufficiently addressed their own faults,” Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said.

Initially there were no signs that Duterte was interested in scuttling the broader US-Philippines defense agreement. Philippine Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay and senior military leaders said Duterte’s comments were not a sign that agreements between the United States and the Philippines would be abrogated.

Malacanang clarified that President Rodrigo Duterte’s pronouncement that US troops should leave Mindanao is not yet a policy of the present administration. ”It is not a policy yet. Nobody acted on it yet but these are backgrounders for possible future action,” Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said in a media briefing.

On September 9, 2016 the American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines voiced "growing concern over developments that could harm the long-standing optimism of American business to invest in the Philippines. ... the increased number of killings during the heightened anti-drug campaign is harming the country’s image, as portrayed by international media, and some investors are now asking whether this campaign reduces the rule of law. In addition, traditionally excellent bilateral relations between the United States and the Philippines have recently been strained by language from Philippine leaders. Although statements of regret soon followed, such words and their international policy also create investor concern."

Duterte said 26 September 2016 he wanted all US forces out of his country's south, where they have been advising local troops battling Muslim extremists. Duterte blamed the US for the restiveness of Muslim militants in the region, marking the first time he has publicly opposed the presence of American troops in the country. Duterte did not set any deadline or say how the withdrawal would proceed, but said the Americans were high-value targets for the Islamic State-linked Abu Sayyaf as counterinsurgency operations intensify. “Those special forces, they have to go, they have to go... I do not want a rift with America, but they have to go...It will just get more tense. If they [Muslim militants] see Americans there, they will really kill them. They will try to get ransom, then kill them," he said.

The State Department characterized Duterte's comments as "unhelpful." Philippine National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon interpreted Duterte’s statement claiming that what he meant was the upcoming war exercises will be the last only for the year.

Duterte said 28 September 2016 that a joint military exercise scheduled for early October 2016 between his country and the United States would be the last between the two countries. Duterte said the Philippines will honor its existing security treaties, but will not take part in any South China Sea patrols with the United States, in order to avoid getting dragged into any conflict between Washington and Beijing. "So I am serving notice now to the Americans and to those around: I will maintain the military alliance because there is the R.P.-U.S. pact which our countries signed in the early '50s, but I will establish new alliances for trade and commerce,” Duterte said. “And [we] are scheduled to hold war games again, which China does not want. I would serve notice ... now that this will be the last military exercise. Jointly, Philippines-U.S., the last one."

The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) welcomed the statement of President Duterte declaring that war exercises to be conducted next week by US military forces will be the last. “The peace-loving and patriotic Filipino people are pleased that the GRP President has heeded their clamor to put an end to US military exercises in the Philippines, which have long violated Philippine sovereignty and served as an insult on their national dignity,” said the CPP.

Philippine Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana said 07 October 2016 that the president intends to halt the 28 military exercises carried out by the two countries every year. Duterte has said that the current joint exercise will be the last during his six-year presidency. The defense minister also announced that the Philippines would expel the 107 US troops monitoring surveillance drones against Islamic militants as soon as the country had acquired similar intelligence-gathering capabilities.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay wrote, “Breaking away from the shackling dependency of the Philippines to effectively address both internal and external security threats has become imperative in putting an end to our nation's subservience to United States' interests.”

Duterte took a jab, not only at the United States or President Barack Obama, but at the American people themselves, in a speech in front of Chinese businessmen and government officials. “Americans are loud, sometimes rowdy. Their larynx is not adjusted to civility,” said Duterte on 20 October 2016, before mimicking an American accent. The audience, for the most part, laughed at Duterte’s anti-American jokes and clapped loudly when he praised China. “I announce my separation from the United States, both in military but economics also”. “So, please, you have another problem of economics in my country. I am separated from them so I will be dependent on you for a long time,” Duterte said, before chuckling. He said “America has lost” in the areas of politics and culture, and that he is ready to “shift gears.... I realign myself in your ideological flow and maybe I would also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are 3 of us against the world – China, Philippines, Russia”.

Denouncing the neo-colonial nature of US-Philippine bilateral relations, people's movements representing Indigenous and national minorities flooded the streets of Manila on 21 October 2016, burning U.S. flags and calling for the termination of unjust agreements with their former colonizer. At stake is the future of the Mutual Defense Treaty, Mutual Logistics Support Agreement, Visiting Forces Agreement and Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, as well as the militarization of civilian rural communities. The human rights organization Karapatan noted that "... the utter truth of the matter is, they should really get the hell out of our country for all the crimes they perpetrated versus the Filipino people."

Duterte’s officials were left scrambling to explain and interpret their president’s statements for the media, while White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters there had been “too many troubling public statements from President Duterte over the last several months.” Duterte seemed to walk back his previous statement. Speaking from his home city of Davao, Duterte told reporters that a full separation was unfeasible. “It’s not a severance of ties. Severance is to cut diplomatic relations,” the president explained. “I cannot do that. Why? It’s for the best interests of my country that we maintain that relationship,” he said. Duterte then tried to reframe his earlier speech, explaining that the Philippines was not seeking to sever ties, but to pursue its own independent policies. “What I was really saying was, separation of a foreign policy,” he continued. “In the past, and until I became president, we always followed what the US would give the cue. What he would give, the cue, that we are there, we are there, we follow. I won’t follow.” As to maintaining military ties with the United States, Duterte said he would need to consult with his police and military.

The Philippines foreign affairs secretary attempted to clarify his country's relationship with the United States. While calling the United States the "closest friend" of the Philippines, foreign affairs secretary Perfecto Yasay said that the country must separate from its "former colonial master" in order to advance its growth and international relations. "Indeed, breaking away from our closest friend, only military ally and strategic partner would not be in our best national interest. ... And yet, separation from our former colonial master is demanded in pursuing our independent foreign policy. It implies breaking away from the debilitating mindset of dependency and subservience - economically and militarily - that have perpetuated our "little brown brother" image to America, which has stunted our growth and advancement."

One question was whether Duterte was willing to sacrifice the country's regional security alliance and its economic interests in his pro-China push. The Philippine economy is far more intertwined with the US than with China. The US accounts for a third of the billions of dollars in remittances transferred to the country by the Filipino diaspora. The US is also a much bigger source of foreign investment in the Philippines than China. And the most important sector of the nation's economy - the business process outsourcing industry - is a major source of economic growth and job creation. The service providers predominantly work with US clients.

The Third Quarter 2016 Social Weather Survey was conducted 24-27 September 2016 via face-to-face interviews with 1,200 adults nationwide and with a ±3 percentage-point sampling error margin -- found 55% of Filipinos having “little trust,” 19% undecided, and 22% having “much trust” in China. That yielded a “bad” -33 net trust in the Philippines’ giant northern neighbor. the US has been in positive territory since it first surveyed the superpower in December 1994. Its score has ranged since then from a “moderate” +18 in May 2005 to an “excellent” +82 in December 2013, and has been above +60 since June 2010. Duterte’s pivot was questioned by some analysts who noted that the Philippine economy cannot afford to decouple drastically from its traditional ally and former colonial power.

Duterte downgraded security ties with America, threatening to expel US soldiers stationed in the Philippines and cancelling major war games in the contested South China Sea. He also restricted US access to Philippine bases under the newly implemented Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. All of a sudden, the US seemed on the verge of losing its oldest ally in Asia, with China rapidly filling in the vacuum.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said 07 November 2016 that the security alliance with the United States, including the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that allows prolonged deployment of American forces in the country, would not be scrapped. "It will remain," Lorenzana told reporters, referring to the strategic alliance with Washington. "No, it will not be abrogated. But we will reduce the number of activities." The navy exercises CARAT, or cooperation afloat readiness and training, and Phiblex, a marine amphibious landing exercise, would be cancellled. Both are held annually. Lorenzana said the war games called Balikatan (Shoulder-to-shoulder) involving thousands of American and Filipino soldiers and marines would continue, but would be re-focused to humanitarian, engineering and civic action activities. The Philippines will cut to six or seven the number of military drills with the US set for 2017, from an initial figure of more than a dozen.

The Philippines won’t send a new ambassador to the United States in the near future simply because the country’s controversial strongman president, Rodrigo Duterte, “doesn’t feel like” it. “In the USA, we don’t have an ambassador. No ambassador will go there. Until now, we do not have an ambassador in the United States. I don’t feel like sending one,” Duterte said while delivering a speech in Davao City 02 February 2017. President Duterte did not offer any further explanation for his comment. It had been seven months since the Philippines had an ambassador to the US. The Philippines Embassy, however, was still operational under the leadership of a deputy ambassador.

“In some circumstances, if you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals,” Tillerson said in a speech 03 May 2017 to State Department employees meant to outline to what “America First” means in diplomatic terms. “It really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.” Tillerson said “It doesn’t mean that we leave those values on the sidelines. It doesn’t mean that we don’t advocate for and aspire to freedom, human dignity, and the treatment of people the world over.”

Donald Trump invited Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to Washington to discuss various issues, including the threat North Korea presents to regional security. After the two spoke by phone 29 April 2017, a White House statement said, “It was a very friendly conversation, in which the two leaders discussed the concerns of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regarding regional security, including the threat posed by North Korea.” Trump’s White House invitation to Duterte was somewhat surprising. Duterte has been fanatical about making the Philippines drug-free. Human Rights Watch says since Duterte came into office in June 2016, police and unidentified gunmen had murdered more than 7,000 suspected drug users and dealers.

Trump praised Duterte's immensely polarizing drug war, in which death squads have murdered thousands of people, during the 29 April 2017 phone call. Trump congratulated Duterte on doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.” According to a transcript made by the Philippine government, Trump said, “Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that”. Trump, who affectionately referred to Duterte as “Rodrigo” during their chat, took an unsolicited swipe at Barack Obama. “I … fully understand that and I think we had a previous president who did not understand that,” Donald said. “You are a good man … Keep up the good work. … You are doing an amazing job.”

Donald Trump held bilateral talks with his Filipino counterpart, Rodrigo Duterte, ahead of the East Asia Summit in the Philippines. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on 12 November 2017 told reporters the issue of human rights did come up in Trump’s talks with Duterte. But the Philippines president’s spokesman insisted it did not. Phil Robertson, deputy director in Asia for Human Rights Watch, told VOA “The idea that somehow the U.S. had a special role in protecting human rights and democracy around the world is now as dead and buried as all of the Duterte drug war victims that Trump declined with discuss in Manila."

The Philippine government has said it is temporarily suspending the termination of its military pact with the United States that allows joint military exercises with US forces. Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr announced on 02 June 2020 that due to the "political and other developments in the region", the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) had been extended for at least six months.

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Page last modified: 06-05-2021 17:11:54 ZULU