For Democracy’s Sake, Biden Must Continue Engaging with Duterte
The new US president, Joe Biden, asserted in various forums that his foreign policy would rest on defending democracy and deepening his country’s ties with democratic allies. This agenda faces a serious test with the Philippines, a US ally whose status as a democracy has been eroding since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016.
A convenient option for President Biden is to wait out the current administration and hope that President Duterte’s antidemocratic style of governance and accommodation to authoritarian powers will fade. After all, President Duterte has only one more year left in office. Unfortunately, challenges to the Philippines-US alliance leave President Biden with no alternative but to work with President Duterte.
This engagement must continue for three reasons:
First, the 1998 Philippines-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which grants the US military access to the Philippines, will expire in February 2022 unless President Duterte retains it.
President Duterte ordered the termination of the VFA in February 2020 after the United States revoked the visa of a close political ally. He has since suspended the termination thrice: in June 2020 (soon after which, the United States offered to fix his political ally’s visa), November 2020 (after Biden won the US presidential election), and June 2021.
Meanwhile, a Philippines-US working group had been negotiating a deal on the VFA’s fate since February 2021. Both sides reached agreement in May, and President Duterte is now due to decide on the “improved” text.
How he will decide is unclear. On the one hand, he seemed sympathetic when in September 2020, he unexpectedly pardoned a US soldier who, stationed in the Philippines through the VFA, had been convicted for killing a transgender Filipina. On the other hand, he seemed antagonistic when he demanded that the United States pay and deliver COVID-19 vaccines first before he would reconsider the VFA.
The decision may ultimately rest on China. President Duterte’s first suspension of the VFA’s termination came after China carried on with asserting its sovereignty in the South China Sea while the Philippines and its Southeast Asian neighbors scrambled to keep COVID-19 infections under control. President Duterte could decide to keep the VFA if Chinese assertiveness would persist in the next eight months.
How China will behave is unclear. Chinese ships amassing near Thitu Island and Whitsun Reef in recent months are causing concern and have prompted protests from the Philippines. However, Chinese President Xi Jinping this month called for building a “trustworthy, lovable and respectable” image for China. Whether this will translate to restraint in the South China Sea remains to be seen.
Second, President Duterte’s influence, including his antidemocratic style of governance, will likely persist even after the 2022 general election.
Although President Duterte constitutionally cannot seek reelection, he remains popular, and his anointed successor—possibly his daughter—will likely stand a good chance of winning. Unprecedentedly, he may also run for vice president.
President Duterte’s popularity endures despite his accommodation to China. Filipinos consistently distrust China, but they do not consider the disputes with China in the South China Sea as the most pressing issue for the government.
Still, a majority believes that the government should be assertive in defending the Philippines’ rights in the South China Sea. Assertive posturing could prove popular during the presidential campaigns, but it may not translate to policy. Duterte as a candidate projected a tough stance on the South China Sea disputes, but he now claims that it was purely out of “bravado.”
Third, President Biden can help the Philippines rebuild its democracy.
For instance, the United States can help the Philippines counter possible electoral interference by China and Russia in 2022. The United States can also help the Philippines fight China’s and Russia’s “sharp power.”
Analysts have shown that China and Russia have been undermining the freedoms of speech and the press in democracies by spreading propaganda and censoring criticisms in public discourses abroad. These activities are done subtly. Nevertheless, Chinese sharp power came on public display when a DreamWorks animated film depicted a map that featured China’s illegal nine-dash line in the South China Sea, a scene which the film’s distributor refused to cut.
President Biden must continue engaging with President Duterte even at the risk of criticism for hypocrisy. Some Democrats in the US Senate already said in February that they will seek accountability for President Duterte’s antidemocratic practices.
President Biden has no alternative. Admonishing the Philippines for its decaying democracy could prove counterproductive because it could only force President Duterte to deepen the Philippines’ ties with China and Russia. Instead, engaging with President Duterte for now seems the best way for President Biden to realize his pro-democracy agenda in the Philippines.
Edcel John A. Ibarra is a Pacific Forum Young Leader and US-Philippine Alliance Next-Generation Leader. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science, magna cum laude, from the University of the Philippines Diliman and is pursuing a master’s degree in international studies from the same university. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the institutions he is affiliated with. The author may be reached through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.