Despite Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s openly Chinese-centered foreign policy during his 6-year term, threatening to cancel the Visiting Forces Agreement in 2020 then reinstating said agreement a year later, he has now pledged that the Philippines will help the United States and its allies in the fight against Russia as it was willing to let the US Armed Forces use Philippine bases in the case that the fighting spills over to Asia.
It can be remembered that Duterte, who is classified as a ‘strongman’ in political science terminology, has been allied with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping throughout his term. During a state visit to Beijing in 2016, the then-newly inducted President stated, “I announce my separation from the US,” in an apparent attempt to court Chinese investments.
To jog your memory, this was the Philippine President who called former US President Barack Obama a “son of a whore” then later backed off the United States saying, “I do not want to quarrel with him. He’s the most powerful president of any country on the planet,” in reference to the military capabilities and political influence of the US.
These courtships apparently “worked.” There were 14 Chinese-funded infrastructure projects in the Philippines worth about some $24 billion in investments ever since the start of the Duterte term. Being two months away from the Philippine national elections, most of these infrastructure projects have not been started, and its loans from the Chinese were reportedly taken out at a much higher interest rate. Furthermore, the Chinese influence on the President had been so strong in recent years that Duterte had virtually given some disputed islands to China without a fight. The Philippine President had repeatedly stated that they did not have the naval capacity to challenge China. However, most of the president’s critics had seen these moves as a way to appease Xi to encourage more Chinese investments in the Philippines.
“I am confident that my administration’s Build Build Build program, together with the Belt and Road Initiative, will reap long-term benefits for our peoples,” said the Philippine President in 2021.
Many critics of the President had pointed out that the United States and Japan had better offers for development assistance at a cheaper rate; however, the president did not budge and stated that the relationship with the Chinese was ‘a matter of national interest’. According to Professor Philamer Torio from Ateneo De Manila University, one of the top research universities in the Philippines, Japan was the Philippines’ top development assistance contributor with US$8.5 billion in 2019. He also confirmed that the interest rates on the Chinese loans, apart from being more expensive, had strict confidentiality clauses, which may implicate transparency issues with the Philippine government. In other words, they are a recipe for corruption.
In an apparent shift to the United States following his earlier US shift in 2021, Duterte is now citing the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and the Visiting Forces Agreement in an apparent solidarity move with Washington in light of recent events in Ukraine. According to Philippine Ambassador to the United States, Jose Manuel del Gallego Romualdez, the President had concerns about the crisis in Ukraine and its impact on the international economy.
“He says if they’re asking for the support of the Philippines, it’s very clear that, of course, 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,” Romualdez said. “Give them the assurance that if ever needed, the Philippines is ready to offer whatever facilities or whatever things that the United States will need being a major — our number one ally,” the ambassador emphasized.
While Duterte did not explicitly state which Philippine bases would be on the table, Romualdez did hypothesize that these would be the Clark Freeport Zone and the Subic Bay Freeport Zone, special economic zones in the Philippines which were at one point, military bases and ports operated by the Americans — they were subsequently removed from US operations in 1991 and 1992 following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo.
Romualdez also reported that US national security officials scheduled a meeting at the White House with members of the ASEAN to discuss further sanctions levied on the Russian Federation. This comes after the Philippines voted in favor of deploring the Russian invasion of Ukraine during the emergency meeting of the United Nations.
Filipino-American Military Brotherhood
The 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty is a symbol of the shared history of the Philippines and the United States. It states that both countries would mutually defend each other if there were any armed attacks within the Pacific or any of its respective territories and instrumentalities. The Visiting Forces Agreement is similar in essence, which provides a simplified procedure for US military members in the Philippines to conduct official military business in the country and provides for the legalities that may come up in the case that a US serviceman is charged with a crime.
It is no secret that the Philippines is one of the oldest allies that the United States has, with many Filipinos serving within the ranks of the US military. Apart from Filipino diaspora integrating with mainland US society, the 1947 Military Bases Agreement, specifically in Article 27, permits Filipino citizens to be recruited into the US military as stewards. The 1971 Military Bases Agreement further expanded this policy, stating that Filipinos could enlist in the US military for any position they were qualified for.
The presence of Filipino-Americans in all branches of the military is apparent throughout history, with most Filipinos being present in the US Navy — this is where the term “Filipino Mafia” comes from as Filipinos were able to get you anything you needed during missions and daily operations. So if there were anything you needed, you would count on Filipino-American sailors to get them for you.
US Armed Forces as an Election Issue in the Philippines
The Mutual Defense Treaty and the Visiting Forces Agreement are vital election issues in the Philippines that may break or make a candidate. With elections to be held in May, Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte, is running as vice-president along with the son of former Philippine President and dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. — Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. as president, where he enjoys a 60% lead from polling organizations. Current President Duterte did not support the younger Marcos and called him a “weak leader” as he was allegedly a “spoiled child.”
“No, I cannot because Marcos is there. I’m not impressed by him; he’s really a weak leader. That’s true, I’m not trying to bash anyone, but he’s a spoiled child, only son, of course, he can talk, he delivers articulate English because he studied in different places, but if there’s a crisis, he’s a weak leader, and he has baggage,” the President stated.
It is important to note that Ferdinand Marcos Sr., faked his military records to pursue his senatorial and presidency run in the 1960s, where he claimed to be the most decorated war hero of the Philippines with over 33 war medals, all of which were proven to be fake.
The Marcos-Duterte tandem previously stated that the Philippines did not need to take a stance on the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. However, upon seeing that majority of Filipinos supported Ukraine and the US, they shifted their statement and expressed their support for a “peaceful resolution.”
“I appeal for sobriety to prevail, for a peaceful resolution to the ongoing armed conflict as I stand united with the rest of the world for Russia to respect Ukraine’s freedom and its citizens’ democratic way of life,” Marcos Jr. said. He followed this up through saying that he supported “unconditional observance of human rights,” a statement that opposition groups criticized due to their family having been convicted of corruption and killing over 3,527 people and torturing more than 35,000 individuals from the 70s to the late 80s.
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