Split image of US President-elect Joe Biden and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Image: Twitter

MANILA – With Covid-19 cases hitting new highs, economic recovery fragile and post-election mayhem and toxic partisanship expected to continue for the foreseeable future, Joe Biden is expected to inherit a diminished presidency and weakened United States.

That is already raising questions about whether the incoming Democratic president will be in a strong enough position to promote democracy and rights in his foreign policy in the same manner he suggested on the hustings.  

Indeed, expectations are already rising that Biden will sue for a more cautious and pragmatic approach to Asian policy, especially vis-à-vis tricky allies and leaders in Southeast Asia such as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

Navigating contentious relations with Southeast Asian strongmen will headline the Biden administration’s incoming strategic dilemmas as he seeks to restore and build alliances to counter China.

In particular, the US and Philippines are yet to finalize the fate of a major defense deal, the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which could be abrogated in the coming months in the absence of a definitive diplomatic solution.

Over the past three years, the Filipino populist and his American counterpart established an uncanny rapport, with Trump reportedly even praising Duterte’s scorched earth drug war, which has claimed the lives of thousands of suspected drug dealers.

“I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem,” Trump reportedly told his Filipino counterpart during a phone call in 2017. “Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that,” he added.

US President Donald Trump and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at the ASEAN Summit in Manila, November 2017. Photo: Twitter

Following contentious exchanges with former US president Barack Obama, Duterte welcomed reassuring comments from the then-new occupant in the White House, who lamented “we had a previous president [Obama] who did not understand that, but I understand that.”

Personal ties and ideological alignment between the two populists explain why earlier this year the Filipino leader praised Trump as “a good president and he deserves to be re-elected.” Trump’s tough stance on China and his warm relations with the popular Duterte largely explain why the outgoing US president’s overseas approval ratings are highest in the Philippines.

At the same time, overall bilateral relations have been hounded by human rights issues. In February, Duterte unilaterally initiated the abrogation of a decades-old defense agreement shortly after the US Senate successfully passed sanctions against top Philippine officials involved in gross human rights violations under the Global Magnitsky Act.

Among those targeted as human rights violators was staunch Duterte ally and former police chief Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, who reportedly faces a travel ban in the US for his direct involvement the violent drug war. Up to 67 other police officials were also reportedly on the list.

Other key presidential allies, if not Duterte himself, have feared similar sanctions, prompting the Filipino president to effectively hold hostage the VFA, which has allowed large-scale entry of American troops onto Philippine soil for regular annual exercises since the late-1990s.

Trump downplayed the issue, dismissively stating that the US would “save a lot of money” by downgrading its security commitments to the Philippines. In June, however, the Philippines temporarily suspended the VFA abrogation in light of growing fears over China’s rising maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea. 

US and Philippine troops arm and arm in a joint military exercise. Photo: AFP

The prospect of a Democratic president has unsurprisingly rekindled fears of even more extensive rights-related sanctions against top Philippine officials, including Duterte, who is set to step down from office in early 2022.

Unlike his predecessor, the Biden administration is expected to take a more multilateralist approach to global challenges, including on threats posed by a rising China.

Facing with a plethora of challenges at home, the incoming Biden administration will likely have diminished wiggle room overseas, which will reinforce the need for cooperative relations with key allies and partners, not least the Philippines as a front line South China Sea state.

Employing an expected compartmentalized approach, a Biden administration will likely seek cooperation with China on climate change and other global issues while de-escalating festering trade and tech wars that have disrupted global supply chains.

But there are also strong signs of a bipartisan consensus against China in the US, with the Democratic Party embracing a more hawkish stance including on trade, maritime disputes in Asia, as well as human rights.

Formerly an outspoken supporter of engagement and “strategic empathy” for China, the former vice-president has recently taken an increasingly tough stance and openly decried China as a “dictatorship.”

For decades, the Philippine-US alliance has served as a major bulwark against Chinese assertiveness in adjacent waters and broader Southeast Asia. In 2019, the two allies conducted close to 300 joint military activities, the highest among American partners across the Indo-Pacific.

The VFA’s abrogation, however, could jeopardize more than half of those exercises, which have focused on enhancing military interoperability between the two mutual defense treaty allies.

Thus, Biden’s first priority in the region will likely be the restoration of the VFA’s status by developing functional ties with the Filipino leader, who will be entering his twilight year in office next year.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in campaign mode in a file photo. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

But Biden’s diminished presidency could also mean less fear and loathing among strongmen like Duterte, who will likely try to drive a hard bargain with the US leader who has vast foreign policy experience as both a former vice president and senator.

Regional strongmen like Duterte will likely offer enhanced security cooperation in exchange for reassurances against punitive measures and expanded sanctions against key Philippine officials.

The Biden administration will also have to offer tangible trade and investment deals beyond just criticizing Chinese economic initiatives in the region.

Above all, much will also depend on America’s ability to provide desperately-needed medical assistance, including reliable Covid-19 vaccines, to hard-hit Southeast Asian nations such as the Philippines while China is ramping up its own brand of vaccine diplomacy.