Diplomatic relations between the Philippines and the United States have recently come under strain after the US imposed a travel ban on the Philippines’ former national police chief, Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, by revoking his visa. As justification for their decision, US officials have pointed to the detention of politician and human rights activist Leila de Lima as well as the extrajudicial killings that have taken place in the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs,” a shoot-to-kill policy that has targeted thousands of suspected drug users and dealers. Senator’s dela Rosa’s role as a central figure in Duterte’s war on drugs has drawn scrutiny from the US, as government officials have raised concerns that aspects of Duterte’s war on drugs are incompatible with the US’ human rights-related foreign policy objectives. Following the visa cancellation, Duterte threatened to reduce military cooperation with the US, a long-time ally of the Philippines. The suspension of bilateral military engagement would have implications for counterterrorism efforts in the Philippines and would result in strategic shifts in Southeast Asia.
Terrorism Risks in the Philippines
Domestically, ISIS-affiliated terrorist groups have gained a foothold in the Southern Philippines, also known as Mindanao. Some ISIS-groups have withdrawn from the Middle East and have started recruiting followers in Marawi city on Mindanao. In 2017, Marawi city became a battleground between terrorist groups and the Philippines’ security forces. The conflict lasted for five months until Duterte claimed victory over the militants in October 2017. During the siege of Marawi city, US troops supported Duterte’s forces with technical and surveillance assistance. Despite being pushed back by the Philippine government, however, the terrorist organizations later regrouped and continued their operations in the Southern Philippines. Terminating the defense cooperation with the US could, therefore, have a significant negative effect on domestic security, as the Philippine government would have to contain terrorism in critical zones without US backing.
Strategic Shifts in Southeast Asia
Internationally, a dissolution of the US-Philippines defense pact would shuffle Southeast Asia’s regional politics. Historically, the Philippines has been one of the United States’ closest diplomatic partners in the region since the Second World War. In 1951, the government in Washington, D.C. signed the Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines in order to strengthen their military alliance. In 1999, the Philippines implemented the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US, which establishes legal regulations for US troops and civilians who are temporarily stationed in the Philippines. The VFA reaffirmed the US-Philippine military cooperation. However, following the diplomatic dispute surrounding Senator dela Rosa, Duterte has decided to end the VFA, putting the US-Philippine alliance on unstable footing while the Philippines increasingly pivots towards China.
The Consequences of Balancing Alliances with China and the US
Cultivating amicable relations with China has become Manila’s aim in recent times because China maintains a non-interference policy concerning the domestic affairs of foreign partners. This permits Duterte to continue his war on drugs without foreign scrutiny. Additionally, China has become a strong economic partner, which is why the Philippines has been shifting focus onto China. While this newly formed strategic partnership might appear to be more convenient than the Philippines’ relationship with the US, China’s dominance in the South China Sea may eventually undermine the Philippines’ power and interests in territorial waters in the South China Sea. Losing US support could therefore not only influence domestic counterterrorism efforts but could also weaken Manila’s strategic leverage in the South China Sea. These, in turn, could potentially undercut regional stability and the confidence of foreign investors in the Philippines.