Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (left) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of People, Beijing, April 25, 2019. Photo: AFP / Kenzaburo Fukuhara / Pool

On July 4, 1946, the US granted the Philippines its independence and guided its “democratic transition to a fully sovereign republic.” Ever since, it has had a keen interest in the Southeast Asian country’s domestic politics and especially its foreign policy.

The confluence of this “interest,” the US-China struggle for dominance in the South China Sea, and the domestic row regarding the Philippines’ policy toward China’s actions there, raise the question as to what, if any, ongoing and future role the US may play in Philippine political affairs.

The presence of US forces in the Philippines has always been controversial. In 1947, the two countries signed the US Military Bases Agreement that allowed the United States to establish and operate air and naval bases there. In 1951 the US strengthened its interest in Philippine political affairs by entering a Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with it.

In 1991 the Philippine Senate declined to renew the bases agreement and US forces left the country. However, the two continued to have military cooperation under the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

In 2014, then-Philippine president Benigno Aquino III signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which allows a rotational presence of US troops and assets at Philippine military bases.

In recent years the MDT and the VFA/EDCA have become key to US military strategy in the region vis-à-vis China. Indeed, the Philippines is geographically integral to the US strategy of controlling the first island chain and encircling China. It also needs bases or “places” there to provide in-theater support for its fleet’s operations in the South China Sea, including medium-range missiles.

But the current president, Rodrigo Duterte, who was elected in a 2016 landslide, chose a more neutral foreign-policy path regarding the US and China and threatened to withdraw from the MDT. He also threatened to withdraw from the VFA and delayed implementation of the EDCA.

Some allege he has made a devil’s bargain with China – not to oppose its actions in the South China Sea forcefully in return for massive aid and investment. Others suggest that he believes that in the event of a coup, Chinese President Xi Jinping would protect him.

US opposition to Duterte’s pro-China policies is palpable. Putting pressure on Duterte, the US has reportedly threatened to withdraw its forces aiding the fight against Muslim insurgents in Mindanao if the VFA is not fully renewed by next month.

The US obviously has major security interests in the outcome of the 2022 Philippine presidential election when a successor to Duterte will be chosen. The MDT – which according to the US applies to the South China Sea – the VFA/EDCA and the Philippines/China relationship are looming ever larger as major issues in the election.

A history of interference

History tells us that US interference in Philippine politics cannot be ruled out. From 1946 to 2000, the US intervened in at least 81 foreign elections around the world. It also engaged in covert regime change in its favor in 64 instances during the Cold War, including in Indonesia (twice – helping oust Sukarno in a bloody coup in 1965, and then more deftly his successor Suharto in 1998).

Common tactics that the US has used to change regimes include funding the opposition, supporting military coups, creating chaos and manipulating the media narrative by bribing its principals and flooding it with anti-regime disinformation.

The US Central Intelligence Agency has a long history of involvement in Philippine politics. It ran president Ramon Magsaysay’s 1953 campaign. It funded president Diosdado Macapagal as well as Raul Manglapus, the foreign secretary in president Corazon Aquino’s cabinet, and Emmanuel Pelaez, a former vice-president and Philippine ambassador to Washington.

Senator Benigno Aquino Jr, the father of president Benigno Aquino III, was proud of his CIA affiliations, though he spoke – perhaps naively – of having worked “with” rather than “for” the agency.

Duterte has his own personal history with the CIA and it has shaped his thinking regarding the US. In May 2002 when he was mayor of Davao, the US embarrassed him by facilitating the escape of an American bombing suspect from Philippine jurisdiction and justice. He did not forget what he considered US arrogance and deceit. In 2013, he refused an American request to base drones at Davao’s old airport.

Why is this context relevant?

To paraphrase then-Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi in his retort at an ASEAN Regional Forum meeting, “The US is a big country and the Philippines is not, and that’s just the way it is.” The US can manipulate and subvert its politics if it wants to. And it may well want to do so given the present “unfriendly” regime.

This is not to say that is what is going on. But if it is, it is succeeding in painting an overwhelmingly popular president into a corner regarding his US-China policy.

Now he has been prodded to warn China: “We will not move an inch backward. I have two ships there. Let me tell China now…. I am not ready to withdraw, I don’t want a quarrel, I don’t want trouble, I respect your position and you respect mine. Now, I really won’t withdraw. Even if you kill me, I will be here. This is when the friendship ends.”

But fighting back, he also castigated the US for its role in brokering a stand-down agreement in 2012 between the Philippines and China regarding Scarborough Shoal that China did not honor.

It is a classic CIA tactic to conspire with local military leadership to undertake regime change. It is clear that there are many Americanophiles in high places in and out of government and, most worryingly, in the military, that are opposed to Duterte’s move away from the US, and they are beating the drum for him to change policy or be removed.

Duterte under pressure

With cracks showing in the government, particularly between his office and his foreign affairs and defense secretaries, Duterte is under increasing pressure to do one or the other.

Indeed, when rumors of dissatisfaction in the military surfaced, a disheartened and frustrated Duterte hinted that he might resign. He also said darkly that Filipinos should not forget the actions of his critics “because the day will come when you will also make a judgment.”

Disinformation designed to stir up domestic opposition to an unfriendly government is another classic CIA tactic. There is a lot of it circulating in the local media and on social platforms that appeals to the well-known nationalist emotions of Filipinos.

The opposition’s hope is that the Chinese “intrusions” will become a prime issue in next year’s elections and spur demand for military enforcement of Philippine claims and a return to a pro-US foreign policy.

Disinformation and hype have already created confusion as to what the Philippines claims and “possesses” and why. This makes the government appear disunited and incompetent on this issue, further undermining its credibility and legitimacy. He has now issued a gag order on this subject to his cabinet, hoping to curb their gaffes and public quarrels.

Although the massing of Chinese boats at Whitsun Reef and their intentions may be perceived as intimidating, their presence may be in compliance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and not based on China’s discredited claims to historic rights.

If Chinese vessels are fishing without authorization (permission may have been given) in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) outside of 12 nautical miles from rocks that both claim, then they should indeed cease and desist. But the moored boats were not fishing and even if the vessels were adjudged to be moored in the Philippines’ territorial sea, vessels of any type are allowed to anchor in a foreign territorial sea if “rendered necessary by force majeure or distress.”

After the boats dispersed as demanded, the critics continued to complain that the “maritime militia” vessels are “now scattered in an even wider area within the Philippines’ [EEZ].” A Philippine military task force set up to monitor the situation said the vessels were “swarming” other Philippine-claimed reefs.

But some are legal rocks claimed by China, and the Chinese vessels do have the right of freedom of navigation in the Philippines’ EEZ while moving between China’s claimed territorial seas.

One also has to wonder where the poorly equipped Philippine intelligence community is getting the detailed information on the presence of Chinese vessels – particularly their identification as “maritime militia” – or whether they are taking for granted some US analysts’ assertions that they are all “maritime militia.”

It appears that the issue is really a series of disputes over who owns rocks within 12nm of where the vessels are situated and what they are doing. Apparently Duterte is not the only confused Filipino leader. Foreign Minister Theodore Locsin insists that the features fall within the Philippines’ EEZ and that they are therefore “ours” regardless of territorial waters that China may legally claim.

Richard Javad Heydarian, a Filipino academic, is one of Duterte’s staunchest critics. But even he says the Duterte administration has “ironically done a far better job developing the Philippine presence in the South China Sea” than his predecessors.

As for Duterte’s US-China policy, there is some rationale for it. Duterte likely thinks that American power in the region is waning and that China’s is rising. He recognizes that the Philippines will have to live with and get along with China for the long term – perhaps long after the US presence and relative power in the region have diminished.

He is also unsure if the US will back up the Philippines in a conflict with China over remote disputed rocks. Becoming more neutral between the two is his way of hedging.

Moreover, he believes that there is currently no political way that he can get China to budge. He is not abandoning the arbitration decision but simply waiting for a more advantageous time to try to implement it.

This article is not meant to promote a conspiracy theory. The world has enough of those. It is only to point out an unfortunate confluence of circumstances including potential foreign influences that are undermining the elected Philippine government.

The coming election offers an opportunity for such foreign involvement. Needed is an impartial panel to ensure that there is no outside interference in the Philippines’ politics and elections.

Mark Valencia

Mark J Valencia is an internationally recognized maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. Most recently he was a visiting senior scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies and continues to be an adjunct senior scholar with the Institute. Valencia has published some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles.