By Amy Searight & Phuong Nguyen —
Philippine foreign secretary Perfecto Yasay on September 15 gave a speech at CSIS during his first visit to the United States since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in late June. Yasay, who visited Washington amid questions over the direction of U.S.-Philippines relations under Duterte, had an opportunity to reassure his audience on the strength of the U.S.-Philippine alliance and spell out the tenets of the “independent foreign policy” that Duterte vows to pursue. In the end, he did a little of both, but left some questions unanswered.
Yasay affirmed the Philippines’ “fidelity” to a strong U.S.-Philippines alliance, which he called “a vital component of the Philippines’ independent foreign policy.” He stressed that as the Philippines embarks on a journey of change, it will always view the United States as an “esteemed and trusted ally with whom we share not just a common history and shared values, but a common destiny as well.” Yasay added that the Philippines remains “committed to the principled network of alliances that has for many years guaranteed the stability and enabled the prosperity in our region.”
At the same time, he reminded the audience that Philippine independence was hard-fought and its right to self-determination was enshrined in the country’s constitution. Yasay spelled out the three pillars he said have “always anchored” Philippine foreign policy — economic diplomacy, national security, and the protection of overseas Filipinos — that will guide the Duterte government’s engagement with old and new partners. While those who expected to hear a vision for the U.S.-Philippines alliance over the next six years may have been left wanting, Yasay offered some insights into the thinking behind Duterte’s foreign policy views.
Yasay sought to portray U.S.-Philippines relations as a broad-based partnership that extends beyond the realm of security cooperation, and called for greater U.S. investment — especially in the information technology sector — and more robust bilateral trade, which last year reached $18 billion. The United States is currently the fourth largest foreign investor in the Philippines.
It is important to note, however, that U.S.-Philippine cooperation in governance, the rule of law, and development over the past six years is already an important driver of the relationship. Between 2012 and 2016, the U.S. government invested over $739 million in the Partnership for Growth initiative, in an effort to address what the two sides had identified as the four main growth constraints facing the Philippines: weak governance, constrained public finance, inadequate infrastructure, and weak human resources.
While he acknowledged that U.S.-Philippine military cooperation has deepened over the past six years, Yasay did not elaborate on the future of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which the two sides signed in 2014 and allows for the rotation of U.S. troops and equipment through Philippine bases over a 10-year period. The two governments announced a limited rollout of EDCA at five Philippine bases earlier this year.
Yasay said simply that the Philippine Supreme Court’s ruling on the constitutionality of EDCA early this year “paves the way for the United States and the Philippines to better address security and disaster-related imperatives.” In response to a question on whether Washington should be concerned about the “momentum to implement EDCA,” Yasay affirmed that the Philippines will “maintain, respect, and preserve” the alliance and agreements signed with the United States.
Yasay’s speech signaled a desire to see the non-security elements of the alliance, such as trade and investment, governance, education, and people-to-people exchanges, be accorded greater visibility than in the past. This is because Duterte, the foreign minister says, is interested above all in ensuring the social mobility of all Filipinos, versus the advancement of a wealthy few—a veiled reference to criticism that the fast growth rates under the previous administration did not trickle down to most ordinary Filipinos.
Yasay made several points that surprised those in Washington not accustomed to hearing this kind of narrative from a close and longstanding U.S. ally in the region. Responding to a question on how bilateral relations can be managed in the coming years given the rising death toll of Duterte’s drugs war, Yasay said the two sides “should proceed on the premise that the Philippines and the United States are sovereign equals,” adding that his country cannot forever be the “little brown brothers of America.” This message seems to be at the heart of Duterte’s foreign policy. As Duterte stressed at a press conference during which he proclaimed his independent foreign policy, the Philippines has “every right to pursue an independent foreign policy without interference.” Duterte has shown his extraordinary sensitivity to any criticism of his domestic drug-war policies, which will continue to constrain relations with the United States as well as the EU, UN and others.
In his prepared remarks, Yasay interestingly made no direct mention of China. However, he affirmed that the July ruling by the arbitral tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the Philippines’ case against China’s South China Sea claim is “final and binding to all parties,” and that “whatever tracks the Philippines pursues will be based on the decision of the tribunal.” He reminded the audience of the importance of confidence-building measures in the aftermath of the ruling, since there are no mechanisms to enforce the ruling. He also made clear that the South China Sea dispute is only one part of the Philippines’ relationship with China.
In response to questions following his speech, Yasay sought to clarify Duterte’s recent statement that he no longer wants the Philippines to conduct joint maritime patrols with the United States, and that Manila only should patrol within its territorial waters. On this point, Yasay said that joint patrols in Philippine territorial waters — which extend 12 nautical miles from its coast — “will continue and must continue because this is our commitments to the United States.” However, he repeated that joint patrols in areas within the Philippine exclusive economic zone, some of which he described as “contested,” would be off limits, but added that the Philippines “will continue to undertake its own patrol” in international waters.
Duterte also said earlier that he wanted U.S. troops based in Mindanao in the southern Philippines to leave rather than risk being kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf militants. Yasay explained that the suggested departure of U.S. personnel — who provide military advice for Philippine counter-terrorism operations — would only be an “interim” measure to ensure their safety while the government launches an all-out war against the group.
It is too early to tell whether Washington can take the foreign policy vision that Yasay laid out at face value. Despite the often contradictory public statements made by Duterte administration officials, the foreign minister by necessity has had to soften the president’s rhetoric on issues related to the United States and the U.S. role in the Philippines. There is little question Duterte is set on pursuing a more independent foreign policy, at least when it comes to regional security issues, but it remains to be seen whether he will decide to roll back other areas of bilateral U.S.-Philippine cooperation.
It is important to recognize that Philippine foreign policy under Duterte, while marking a shift from the Benigno Aquino era, is still in its formative stage. Some of its elements represent grassroots aspirations in the Philippines that deserve to be better understood in Washington, while others are merely exploratory, and not strategic, in nature — either in dealing with the United States or China.
Dr. Amy Searight is senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS. Follow her on twitter @AmySearight.
Ms. Phuong Nguyen is an associate fellow with the Southeast Asia Program. Follow her on twitter @PNguyen_DC.
Dr. Amy Searight is senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.