"The Philippines needs to do its part in helping maintain peace and stability in the region."
What could be the possible contours of Philippine-American relations under the Biden presidency?
We imagine that once Biden starts to warm his seat in the Oval Office, US ties with the Philippines will be furthest from his mind, as he and his team would be occupied with undoing all that his predecessor did—or did not do—on the domestic front.
But once the new administration gets its bearings and starts to focus on foreign policy, then we should be able to acquire a clearer picture of what it intends to do in East Asia.
Even before he assumed office, Biden promised to “restore the soul of America,” and lead the superpower in a “battle to restore decency, defend democracy.”
In his first year in office, Biden revealed, the US would organize and host a global Summit for Democracy "to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world."
The summit would bring leaders of democracies together and “honestly confront nations that are backsliding.” The priorities of the summit: “fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights in their own nations and abroad.” The summit would issue a “call to action” for the private sector, including technology companies and social media giants, to ensure their platforms are not used for “spreading hate and misinformation,” surveillance, and repression.
From this we can surmise that Biden will eventually call attention to the Duterte administration's human rights record, particularly in light of its bloody war on drugs. The new president is not likely to compromise on the human rights issue and could take a strong stand against alleged extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. But he would probably think twice about directly confronting Duterte on human rights and let Democrats in the US Congress do that for him. What he could possibly do would be to suggest concrete steps to eliminate human rights abuses by state security forces.
How Duterte and his administration would respond to allegations of EJKs and widespread human rights violations in the country is already predictable. He is likely to loudly protest Washington's interference in our internal affairs and try to use the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) as bargaining chips. But he must realize that the country needs US military clout to maintain the balance of forces in the region.
The US needs the VFA and EDCA as part of its containment strategy against China, so it is likely for both sides to work out a modus vivendi through quiet diplomacy so that US interests in the Philippines and in the South China Sea can be protected and maintained while the Philippines can proceed with the modernization of its armed forces and achieve a credible defense posture with adequate land, sea and air defense capabilities in the years ahead.
Despite Duterte’s pivot toward China, the defense and foreign affairs departments want the country to maintain the security umbrella provided by US military presence in the region. The US wants to continue regular freedom of navigation and overflights in the South China Sea even as China, which claims most of the SCS as part of its territorial waters dating back its historical times, continues to build artificial islands and military structures in parts of the vital sealane.
For his part, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana does not see any drastic change in the relationship between the Philippines and the United States under a Biden administration. The defense official said the Philippines continues to receive military assistance, and recently received $29 million worth of military hardware from the US. We see the US providing more military assistance to the Philippines in the next four years under the Biden administration. The pragmatic approach is for the Philippines to maintain close diplomatic ties, robust economic cooperation and defense arrangements with the United States even as we turn increasingly to China for trade and investments especially in our infrastructure development program.
While shared security interests will keep military cooperation between Manila and Washington going strong in the coming years, we should also work closely with our next-door neighbor toward increased two-way trade and economic cooperation in the coming years.
The United State has expressed support for the ruling of the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 in favor of the Philippines and questioned China’s maritime claims over certain parts of the SCS that we claim as part of our Exclusive Economic Zone under UNCLOS. US support could prove valuable in strengthening our stand on this contentious issue.
The Philippines needs to do its part in helping maintain peace and stability in the region. That entails working with both the United States and China on easing tensions in the South China Sea and finding long-term solutions to territorial disputes through discussion and diplomacy rather than with rhetoric and confrontation.