The Philippines’ Institutionalised Alliance with the US: Surviving Duterte’s China Appeasement Policy

Authors: Wong, Andrea Chloe & Tan, Alexander C.

Published in National Security Journal, 17 March 2021

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This paper examines the security partnership of the United States-Philippines during the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte. Using the theoretical framework of alliance institutionalisation, we identified several factors that can determine the strength of alliances and security partnerships. Applying this framework, we suggest that because of deep alliance institutionalisation, the security partnership between the Philippines and the United States is actually quite resilient despite President Duterte’s position on this issue.

Keywords: US, Philippines, Security partnership, alliance institutionalisation, President Rodrigo Duterte.

In 2016, Rodrigo Duterte assumed the presidency with a promise to reorient the Philippines’ foreign relations. Duterte declared his intent to chart an “independent” foreign policy that deemphasised the country’s extensive reliance on the US while revitalising relations with China, which had experienced a political standstill during the administration of Benigno Aquino III.1 This shift was brought about by Duterte’s personal hostility toward the US and a pragmatic focus on economic imperatives that emphasised economic engagement with China while making concessions in Manila’s maritime sovereignty conflict with Beijing.

This article evaluates the developments in the Philippines’ alliance with the US during Duterte’s presidency. In the context of an adversarial president, the alliance faced the prospect of the Philippines’ abrogation of significant aspects of military cooperation, possibly even culminating in the termination of the US military presence in the country.2 But nonetheless, Philippine-US security cooperation continues. The mechanics of the alliance, including joint military exercises, intelligence-gathering support, counterinsurgency assistance, and defence material acquisition remain. This begs the question: how do we explain the alliance’s resilience in the face of Duterte’s hostility against the US?

We contend that the concept of alliance institutionalisation is useful in understanding the strength of Philippine-US security cooperation. Alliance institutionalisation suggests that the design of institutions such as alliances ensures its survival during crisis and uncertainties.3 Under Duterte, the Philippines’ alliance with the US has faced various threats due to his antipathy towards the Americans and his policy of de facto appeasement towards China. Duterte’s appeasement policy is intended to pacify or conciliate with the Chinese by making diplomatic and strategic concessions in order to avoid conflict and renew bilateral ties,4 which consequently undermined Philippine US relations.

Against this background, we then evaluate the factors that promote alliance institutionalisation and explain how each of them contributes in fortifying the utility and value of the two countries’ security relationship. In particular, we examine three factors: the alliance mentality in the Philippines’ bureaucracy, the regularisation of alliance activities, and the established alliance benefits that the country gains from the US. We conclude by suggesting that the dynamics of long-term alliance institutionalisation will ensure that the Philippines’ military partnership with the US will outlast Duterte’s presidency.

1  Andrea Chloe Wong is a PhD graduate of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Canterbury. Alexander C. Tan is Head of Department and Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Canterbury.