Duterte’s hostility and Obama’s errors threaten an old and once valued alliance
The United States-Philippines alliance has been under stress since the election of the vocally anti-American Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016, but Washington bears plenty of responsibility for the downturn in relations.
Most frustrating for the Philippines was American inaction as China launched its march across the South China Sea earlier this decade, with the U.S. administration of President Barack Obama taking virtually no action to dissuade Beijing from its island-building campaign.
When China reneged on a U.S.-brokered deal to end a standoff between Beijing and Manila over Scarborough Shoal in 2012, Washington did little more than shrug its shoulders.
The U.S. has thus proven itself an undependable ally for the Philippines when it comes to defending Manila’s interests in the South China Sea. That brewing dissatisfaction seemed to come to a head when Delfin Lorenzana, the Filipino defense secretary, announced in December that he had launched a review of the U.S.-Philippine mutual defense treaty to determine whether Manila should “maintain it, strengthen it, or scrap it.”
Enter U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who visited the Philippines in late February in an attempt to set the ship aright. While there, he did what the Philippines has long been requesting, clarifying that the defense treaty applies to the South China Sea: “As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft, or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our mutual defense treaty.”
This was not a new policy. In a letter to the then-foreign affairs secretary of the Philippines in 1999, U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Thomas Hubbard clarified that the treaty applied to the South China Sea. In 1979, U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance outlined a similarly expansive interpretation of the treaty. Even so, this interpretation had not been restated in two decades; indeed, the Obama administration had pointedly refused to reissue such a clarification. In light of China’s actions in recent years, a recommitment to this position was sensible.
Asked if he was satisfied with Pompeo’s clarification, Filipino Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin replied in the affirmative. “We are very assured,” he said. “We are very confident that the United States has, in the words of Secretary Pompeo and the words of [U.S.] President [Donald] Trump to our president, ‘we have your back.’”