• Dean Dulay

Can Domestic Politics Help Us Understand Our Relations with the United States?

Photo Source: ABSCBN News

Anniversary celebrations usually serve two purposes. The first is to commemorate the years that have been. The second is to look forward to the continuation of the institution being celebrated, and to speculate (optimistically) about the many opportunities still to come. It is thus somewhat ironic, as we celebrate 75 years of Philippines-US diplomatic relations, that future relations between the two countries remain uncertain.

This is so for many reasons. The most common explanation is great power competition: The two international powers of this century---China and the United States--- toggle for control of the global order. In this story, the Philippines is a bit player in the great game of global politics: a small country with a strategic location and whose cooperation would greatly strengthen one country at the expense of the other. Of course, international affairs matter and we should talk about how U.S.-China relations affects the Philippines. However, this gives too little agency to the Philippines as a master of its own fate, and as a country with agency that makes strategic decisions and pursues its own interests. This essay seeks to emphasize a different (perhaps obvious, but still understated) point: domestic politics shapes Philippines-US relations. In fact, domestic political concerns were the major factor underlying many of the landmark moments in relations between the two countries.

The conceptual framework is simple: political actors make strategic calculations over domestic political affairs, balancing political expediency and popularity, security, and economic concerns. I argue in my recent paper with J. Wellington Brown that the Philippines is more likely to give concessions to the U.S., specifically in terms of bases or agreements that lead to greater U.S. presence, when security and economic benefits outweigh the costs of political unpopularity that come with these bases (nationalist sentiment makes U.S. presence unpopular).

The most significant moment in U.S.-Philippines relations in the last 50 years – the withdrawal of U.S. bases in 1992 – very much supports this idea. The withdrawal did not come about because of great power competition. At that time, the U.S. had hegemonic control over the global order. Its specific structural relations with the Philippines was stable. What changed? The perceived existential threats to the regime – the coups and the NPA – had failed or were greatly weakened. Electoral concerns became paramount. Sovereignty and legitimacy were on the ballot box. Under the leadership of then Senators Wigberto Tanada and Joseph Estrada the basing issue was framed as an affront to sovereignty and nationalism, and moved from being an issue for the elites to one that generated mass public opposition. Their popular mobilization efforts were so successful that support for the bases fell below 30%. With domestic security concerns out of the way, the Senate voted to remove the bases from Philippine territory. This supports our key point that the major turning point in U.S.-Philippines relations turned on domestic politics, not the whims of global politics.

How does this framework help us understand the future of U.S.-Philippines relations, in particular its formal operationalizations, the VFA and the EDCA? There are reasons to be pessimistic, given President Duterte’s explicit statements to “terminate” the VFA, a specific example of rhetoric suggesting a move towards China and away from the U.S. But at least in terms of our framework, there are reasons to be optimistic about the continuation of the status quo arrangement: First, the VFA and EDCA do not pose as large a sovereignty cost and is thus harder to frame politically as a sovereignty issue. Unlike U.S. bases, these current iterations of U.S.-Philippines relations feature, at least de jure, more transient U.S. presence in the country, still not tantamount to the long-term physical presence of bases (and their downstream economic impacts). Second, in spite of rising tensions between the U.S. and China, international affairs still do not place highly in the minds of the Filipino voter. These issues remain far below concerns such as poverty reduction, lessening crime, and the economic and health costs of the COVID pandemic. Third, if international affairs becomes a salient political issue, the politics may favour maintaining the VFA and EDCA as currently constructed, since Filipino voters are strongly in favour of the U.S. versus China. In spite of President Duterte’s persistent popularity and pro-China stance, as recently as 2019, 78% of Filipinos believe that the relations with the U.S. are more important than relations with China (12% believe China relations are more important). This gap grew during the pandemic. The latter two points emphasize the importance of mass public opinion as an impetus for political change, as was the case in the 1990s. The reason is straightforward: politicians want to win votes and will align policy stances closer to stances that voters support. There are, of course, other considerations at play: Duterte has remained resiliently popular. It is plausible to believe that his supporters will simply change their mind on this issue or consider it less important than other issues such as crime and poverty, where their views align more closely to the President. Second, this may legitimately be, as other analysts have pointed out, a rational shift towards the coming Sino-centric order as the Philippines’ economic and security needs are better met by aligning with a great power within the Asia region. Still, either of these events would be a marked shift away from how Philippines-U.S. relations have traditionally been conducted, and would go against structural political factors resisting such a seismic change. Thus to the extent that “all politics is local”, there are reasons to remain optimistic about maintaining the status-quo arrangement.

Dean C. Dulay is an Assistant Professor at Singapore Management University. He received his PhD in Political Science with a specialization in Political Economy from Duke University.