Duterte and Trump “likely to get on,” but is the damage to relations already done?

President Duterte and President-elect Trump are likely to get on well say high-placed sources; after all, they share the same temperament. And as both turn away from decades of American involvement in the Asia-Pacific region their flair for rhetoric, paints a new future for trade and security.

By Dimitra Stefanidou

President Duterte’s foreign policy plans seem to be ever-changing. But, to be fair, so is the political game around him. As President-elect Trump prepares for his new office, his potential partner and “Trump of the East” Mr Duterte, seems to be eyeing up a softer line towards America than the controversial statements of recent months.

That said, he has stuck by his commitment to a new world order led by China and Russia. And during his speech before leaving in Peru to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit he highlighted that US security and trade policies are becoming uncertain. This is practically a given; Trump’s position on relations with China will have wide implications for the Asia-Pacific region and may weaken Duterte’s position on maritime sovereignty.

The two could work together though, Duterte thinks. “I would like to congratulate Mr Donald Trump. Long live,” he stated during a visit to Malaysia. “We are both making curses. Even with trivial matters we curse. I was supposed to stop because Trump is there. I don’t want to quarrel any more because Trump has won.”

He has also said, “We don’t have any quarrels. I can always be a friend to anybody especially to a president, a chief executive of another country. He has not meddled in the human rights.”

Joint defence policy

And regarding the sensitive issue of defence relationships, Duterte recently agreed to maintain the current U.S- Philippine relationship, suggesting he may be pulling back from the brink of breaking up with its former best friend. However, some joint assault exercises and drills were cancelled, such as PHILBEX, the marine amphibious landing exercise and the naval exercise, CARA. Duterte did not want any more “showy war games,” a military spokesman said.

At the same time agreements regarding humanitarian aid and help in cases of disaster, terrorism and drugs remain in place and, in fact, broke new grounds during the Mutual Defence Board and Security Engagement Board (MDB-SEB) held on November 22nd. Coming out of this meeting, it was reported that military ties between the two would not be broken.

“We look forward to continued, close cooperation in areas central to both our national and security interests including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counterterrorism, cyber security, and maritime security” the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the United States Pacific Command reported in a joint statement, after the successful session.

New best friends

Regardless of military talk, the Philippines President met with his so-called “hero” the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, in Lima recently. During this session, he wrote off close relations with America as an alliance which was simply good for as long as it lasted. His intention now is to turn to Russia and China and pursue an independent foreign policy for the Philippines, he explained. 

He continued, “That is what is wrong with America and the others. They’ve been waging wars in so many places — in Vietnam, in Afghanistan and Iraq for one single reason that there was a weapon of mass destruction, and there was there was none.”  

“You know, if China and Russia would decide to create a new order, I will be the first to join,” Mr Duterte said. This is because according to the Philippine strongman, many conflicts around the world have been caused by the existing global superpower, America. However, Washington’s direction is not necessarily always correct. The thing is, President-elect Trump would probably agree.

Issues of security

In this current situation of emerging priorities and changing allegiances, both Duterte and Trump’s positions cast further doubts on Philippines’ alliance with the US on security in the South China Sea. And the fact that Duterte has abandoned Philippines’ territorial claims in the area so as to obtain investments and economic aid from China clearly reveals an underlying diplomatic strategy.

According to Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay, outgoing President Obama believes the two leaders will get on well as they share the same temperament. But this is about more than just personality, says the minister. “We want to convey the message to America that our relationship can be stronger if there will be a reevaluation and readjustments of our relationship where this time, dependency will not be allowed, right?” adding, “That is more fundamental.”

The use of the phrase dependency here is interesting. Duterte’s whole position towards the U.S. indicates that he wants to get rid of American imperialism and the associated close connections. But that may be something that he and the next President have in common. Perhaps the election of Trump is an opportune time for a reset of relations between the two, but neither seem to have a huge appetite for being involved in the matters of the other. That may work out perfectly.