Duterte-US relations: From sour tune to friendly harmony
More than a year after President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to cut decades-long ties of the Philippines with the United States, the brusque leader had since changed his tune and adopted a softer stance against “Uncle Sam.”
In his four-day visit to China in October 2016, Duterte said it was “time to say goodbye” to the US, accusing our longtime ally of hypocrisy and bullying over its criticisms on his vicious campaign against illegal drugs.
Duterte had repeatedly slammed former US President Barack Obama, whom he claimed had been dictating on the Philippines for interfering with the country’s domestic affairs. He even called Obama a “son of a bitch.”
The tough-talking Duterte had also threatened to end joint military exercises with the US. He also vowed he would never travel to America “in this lifetime.”
“Your stay in my country was for your own benefit. So, time to say goodbye, my friend,” Duterte said in a speech in Beijing, referring to ties that bind the Philippines and the US.
Elected into the presidency by more than 16 million Filipinos, Duterte declared an independent foreign policy and said he would reject any meddling by foreign governments.
Mr. Duterte, known for his flurry of expletives every time he opens his mouth, has been courting two US rivals – China and Russia – countries which, he said, do not meddle with the country’s internal concerns.
However, such a stern position against the US did not last long.
WHISTLING A DIFFERENT TUNE
In November 2016, Republican candidate and business tycoon Donald Trump won as America’s 45th President, trampling over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, whom Obama actively campaigned for. Trump assumed office in January 2017.
Immediately, Duterte mellowed about Philippine-US relations and relaxed towards Uncle Sam, as he seemed to have found a kindred soul in the equally curt US leader.
“I don’t want to quarrel anymore,” Duterte said in a speech before the Filipino community in Malaysia the day Trump won the US elections.
“We are both foul-mouthed. We curse even the smallest things,” he also said.
In a dinner with Malacanang reporters in November 2016, Duterte said he could get along well with Trump.
“Yes, I’m sure. We don’t have any quarrel,” he said. “I can always be friend to anybody, especially presidents, chief executive of another country. He does not call me out over my campaign about human rights.”
Duterte and Trump had at least two phone conversations – first in December 2016, and second in April 2017.
During their first talk, Special Assistant to the President Christopher “Bong” Go said the two leaders had a “very engaging and animated phone conversation.” It was during this chat that the two leaders exchanged invitations: Trump asked Duterte to visit the White House while Duterte asked Trump to attend the 2017 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Summit in Manila this November.
Last April, Trump again phoned Duterte at the close of the 30th Asean Summit in Manila.
Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said that “the ambit of the conversation between the two leaders includes the expression of commitment of the US President Trump to the PH-US alliance and his interest in developing a warm, working relationship with President Duterte.”
‘AMERICANS REDEEMED THEMSELVES A LOT’
Despite his pivot to China and Russia, Mr. Duterte said he has become on friendlier terms with the US.
Duterte revealed that he was advised by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to “temper” his language against the US government even if he has demanded the US to return the Balangiga church bells, which was seized by the American soldiers after killing residents of an entire village in Samar in the 1900s.
In a speech during the 116th anniversary of the Balangiga Encounter Day in Eastern Samar last September 29, Duterte said: “There are so many factors involved but I’d rather be friendly to them now because aside from these episodes of, I said, sad incidents, overall I think the Americans also redeemed themselves a lot.”
Duterte acknowledged in the same speech the assistance of the US throughout the years, even citing America’s help during the five-month Marawi City siege.
“I will not say they are our saviors, but they are our allies and they have helped us,” he said.
PH-US RELATIONS ‘BACK ON VERY GOOD TERMS’
Sought for comment on the Philippines’ improving ties with the US under the Trump administration, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said our ties with Washington has remained strong.
“The relationship of the United States and the Philippines has always been very strong,” Cayetano, who was Mr. Duterte’s running mate in the May 2016 elections, told INQUIRER.net in an interview.
According to Cayetano, the two countries’ mutual interest, historical ties, and common values remain intact though he admitted that there had been issues that have rocked the relationship.
“Now, as described by some of my American counterparts, the ties are there and are strong but also there are political issues now and then, and depending on the administration both here and in the US, there are ups and downs in the relationship,” the foreign affairs chief noted.
Cayetano said Duterte and Trump “like each other.”
“So, I think we’re back in very good terms with the US and President Trump because President Trump and President Duterte respect each other, like each other and have a direct line,” he said.
Political analyst Richard Heydarian said Duterte and Trump have “some element of personal rapport and ideological solidarity.”
Contrary to Obama’s criticisms on his brutal war on drugs, Duterte has said that Trump supports his anti-narcotics campaign.
“I could sense a good rapport, an animated President-elect Trump. And he was wishing me success in my campaign against the drug problem,” Duterte said after his phone conversation with Trump in December 2017.
Heydarian said Trump was prioritizing “strategic interest” with the Philippines.
“As I foresaw ahead of Trump’s assumption of power, his emphasis on strategic interests over values such as human rights and democracy will facilitate the steady restoration of bilateral ties with estranged allies like the Philippines,” Heydarian told INQUIRER.net
“As for Duterte, he has consistently refrained from attacking Trump or his administration, welcome closer ties with Obama’s successor. He has eagerly sought to prove that the Philippines has become a major power broker in its own right with equidistant yet fruitful relations with all major powers, both China and US,” he added.
He also said Duterte’s “attacks against US were more vague and primarily targeted at American media, congress and democratic opposition who have lambasted his drug war.”
Cayetano said there’s better understanding now between the Philippines and US “through the hard work of diplomats and officials on both sides.”
“Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Ambassador Sung Kim made a very big role in not only normalizing but strengthening our relationships,” he said.
Cayetano explained that Duterte’s statements were “very real but it’s also very strategic.”
“So remember, when the President says something, it’s very real but it’s also very strategic. Meaning he doesn’t say it for the sake na hindi siya yung klaseng taong may tampo lang o may galit lang o inis siya sa ganito…,” he said.
“He’s doing it for the country, he’s stating it for the country, so people might not always agree (on) what he says, how he says it but there is a rhyme and rhythm, there is a strategy in all of that,” he added.
Cayetano clarified Duterte’s language, which he said “may be a little harsh.”
“So, really… in world politics, there’s so much noise, there’s so much attention that the President had to make (to make) his point very strong. To some it may be a little bit harsh but you know it struck a point,” he said.
TRUMP IN MANILA: A ‘VERY STRONG MESSAGE OF FRIENDSHIP’
The White House has confirmed Trump’s Asian tour this November, which includes a stop in the Philippines for the 2017 Asean Summit.
Cayetano said Trump would be in the Philippines on November 12 to 13, and would have a bilateral meeting with Duterte.
“So, we expect (that) the visit of President Trump would further strengthen the relationship and that they will talk about substantive areas of cooperation. Basically, it’s security and economics or trade,” Cayetano said.
Cayetano said the two leaders are anticipated to explore the possibility of more bilateral agreements in various fields during their meeting.
“They’re negotiating many regional and multilateral trade agreements but there’s a possibility that we will explore a bilateral agreement. How to better trade between the two countries. How to get more Filipino goods into the US and how to also support the US economy by us contributing also,’ he said.
But aside from expected bilateral agreements, Cayetano said Trump’s visit to Manila would show a “very strong message of friendship.”
“He’s (Trump) attending most of the activities [of the Asean], and the bilaterals with the allies including the Philippines. It’s a very, very strong message of friendship,” he said.
For Heydarian, Trump’s visit to Manila was meant to win back the Philippines.
“Trump is going to Manila to show that he can win back estranged allies, who were alienated by the Obama administration’s human rights centric approach,” he said.
He said Trump “sees in Duterte a fellow populist and decisive leader besieged by liberal internationalist elite, so there is some element of personal rapport and ideological solidarity.”
“I expect a convivial hobnob between the two in Manila with glittering headlines featuring them, perhaps, with signature Duterte fist gesture,’ he said.
Abella, meanwhile, said Trump’s visit shows that the strained relations between the Philippines and US were now on the mend.
“President Trump’s visit underscores the improving Philippine-US ties and President Duterte is looking forward to welcoming the US President in Manila,” he said./kga
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