Preserving American Interests in Duterte’s Philippines

By Trevor Tackett

With the expansion of Chinese power projection deeper into the South China Sea threatening to cut off key sea lanes from American military and commercial use, maintaining a strong relationship with the Philippines is more vital now than ever. Unfortunately, the end of the Obama Administration saw an escalation in tensions between the two allies. In an October speech in Beijing, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced his economic and military separation from the United States, citing three reasons for this dramatic shift in foreign relations: American criticism of extrajudicial killings; the failure of American aid; and mistrust. In his actions, Duterte draws upon a historical narrative that has formed throughout his life. By exploring this narrative, this paper reveals a framework upon which the U.S. Government can understand the reasoning behind Duterte’s inflammatory rhetoric. Based on this framework and a discussion of U.S. maritime interests in the Asia-Pacific region, this paper develops an aid strategy that provides the greatest opportunity for preserving the U.S.-Philippine relationship. Although the executive branch directs much of America’s foreign policy, Congress, who controls government spending through appropriations, is in a unique position to implement such a strategy. This paper recommends that members of the Appropriations Committee consider carefully how they structure the Philippine aid package. While changes are certainly required to avoid funding Duterte’s inhumane “war on drugs,” Congress must walk a fine line to avoid the appearance of financial coercion that would only escalate tensions. By redistributing funds to areas of mutual U.S.-Philippine interests, however, Congress will position the executive branch in a way most conducive to maintaining a long-term partnership with the Philippines.

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