How to manage a wayward President
Once again, President Duterte has threatened to end the PH-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) signed in 1998. Abrogating the VFA is in some superficial sense a logical threat. Mr. Duterte in effect cancels the visa-free status of hundreds of American soldiers on Philippine soil. But these American soldiers are embedded in various Philippine bases, primarily on training missions and assisting Philippine soldiers, without committing boots on the ground. They are involved in various tasks, including countering Chinese intrusion in the West Philippine Sea and monitoring Islamic State (IS)-related threats in Mindanao.Philippine presidents have shown their love and hate for the United States in contrasting ways. In his inaugural address as president in 1946, Manuel Roxas said: “Our safest course, and I firmly believe it true for the rest of the world as well, is in the glistening wake of America whose mighty advance with mighty prow breaks for smaller craft the waves of fear.” Mr. Duterte, for his part, recently said in obvious pique: “If you do not do the correction [denial of US visa of Ronald dela Rosa], one, I will terminate the bases, the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). I will finish that son of a bitch.” And he gave a deadline: “I am giving the government and the American government one month from now.” But it is not the change in policy that is striking. It is not even the Roxas eloquence and the Duterte coarseness. It is the premise of the policy. In the case of Roxas, it was the postwar survival of the Philippines. In the case of Mr. Duterte, it is the reinstatement of Dela Rosa’s US visa.
Abrogating the VFA will be infinitely more damaging to the Philippines than to the United States. It would be a symbolic win for China with regard to the West Philippine Sea, and for the IS with regard to its effort to establish a toehold in Mindanao. The IS resurgence in Mindanao would be a more worrying prospect in view of how the Marawi rehabilitation has, intentionally or otherwise, shabbily treated the residents, creating lingering resentments against the Philippine government. These resentments translate into an opportunity for an IS comeback. With the potential for sharing this opportunity with Indonesian, Malaysian and Middle Eastern jihadists, another Marawi is not far-fetched.
Why would the Philippine military accept this dramatic loss of military leverage simply because the President is peeved? The military must also be aware that in the larger regional context, the Philippines has turned out to be the weakest link in facing up to China. Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Indonesia are doing their part to keep China at bay, while the Philippines repudiates the strengths the arbitral tribunal has offered.
This is not the time to lose the VFA and concomitant US support. The biggest security task of the Philippine defense community is how to manage a wayward President. Recent events prior to the threat of abrogating the VFA have shown just how erratic this President has been. In the wake of the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani by the United States and the Iran missile response, Mr. Duterte quickly declared he would side with the United States if overseas Filipino workers are harmed. He then impulsively said he would send Philippine naval ships to the Middle East on a “humanitarian” mission, oblivious of the risk that these military forces could become magnets for missile attacks.
On the part of the United States, its protection of the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and its antiterrorism campaign are critical national interests. They will continue to do so regardless of whether the Philippines provides rotating deployment facilities to the Americans. For so long as the Philippine military and the Filipino people are pro-United States, which Mr. Duterte laments, the United States will simply wait out Mr. Duterte. Better, it will make sure Mr. Duterte will not be reincarnated in a future president. It will likely take a calibrated response, using more subtle means to encourage regime change. That is the transformative silver lining in Mr. Duterte’s threat.
In foreign policy decision-making, there are layers of factors, some changeable over centuries (geopolitics), some changeable over decades (economic growth), some changeable over years (administrations), and some changeable over hours and days (psychological state and mood of the key decision-maker). Obviously, in the case of Mr. Duterte, his psychological state is the prime determining factor of Philippine foreign policy today. That makes for a very dangerously wayward President. That is Mr. Duterte—still more a mayor than a president.
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