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.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III with Philippine national defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana discussing the Visiting Forces Agreement in 2021 (US Department of Defense). Source:
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III with Philippine national defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana discussing the Visiting Forces Agreement in 2021 (US Department of Defense). Source:

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.