Love triangle reloaded? The Trump triumph and US-Philippine-China ties

 Both President Rodrigo Duterte and President-elect Donald Trump are very thin-skinned people. They do not forget slights and carry on a grudge even if it seems politically unwise to do so to others.

Thus Trump kept running feuds with different people during the campaign, like Megan Kelly of Fox News, with whom he had a run-in in the first Republican debate during which he made that horrible remark that "blood was coming out of her wherever."

Duterte's quarrel with the US has strong personal overtones since it began with people who voiced criticism of his war on drugs, one that escalated into a foreign policy crisis. While Duterte may continue to hold anti-US views, he probably would be much less antagonistic in his approach to Trump since the personal hurt is not there. Also being both authoritarian personalities who are used to acting as the boss, they probably have a deep understanding of each other's personalities and thus know where not to tread. 

Trump gets along well with Vladimir Putin of Russia because they have the same authoritarian, "boss" personality. I see him getting along well with Duterte. "Godfathers" understand each other, and can be quite friendly in their encounters because they know which buttons to push and which buttons not to push.  But will it ever come to Duterte singing," it's the Philippines, China, Russia, and the US against the world"? It depends on whether the chemistry is really good.

The triangle

I think that if Trump plays it right at the personal level, Duterte's antagonism towards the US will go down a several degrees, perhaps to the point that Duterte might stop uttering his threats of ending the treaties with the US.

But the relationship won't get as warm as during the Aquino days since Xi Jin Ping will be there, reminding Duterte of China's new “special relationship” with the Philippines. I think we might see a situation where Xi Jin Ping and Trump might vie for the affections of Duterte, though I think this triangular relationship won't get out of hand. If you notice, I am now talking in terms of personalities, not governments, because I think Xi Jin Ping knows he is dealing with two very "personalistic" people, who think and feel l’etat ces moi, that is, identify their personas with the state, and he has to play them at that level, though he himself is more in the impersonal bureaucratic mold of the Communist Party apparatchik.


In terms of the geopolitical dimension, a lot depends on how Trump will deal with China. 

While China was one of his rhetorical targets during the campaign, Trump stirred fears in Japan and Europe that he is an isolationist who feels the US is overcommitted abroad and must refocus inward and rebuild itself, leaving more of the defense of Japan and Europe to these countries. 

My sense is that he is more interested in building a wall across the US-Mexico border than containing China militarily, so there's a very real prospect that he's going to junk Obama's “Pacific Pivot.” Also Trump's worry about China is at the level of trade relations, and China is not the only Asian country he worries about. He sees the East Asian countries as “unfair traders,” to be dealt with by raising US trade barriers to their goods, not by opening them up like the Clinton Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans want. That's the reason he wants to junk the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Add this all up, and he won't do much to contain Duterte's drift to China, though he will try to remain on a friendly basis with him.


Where there might be a potential for conflict might be on migration. 

While Trump worries mainly about Mexican migrants and Muslims, there will be a tightening of immigration policy overall that will cover even legal migration and visits to the US by Filipinos. This is, of course, to be deplored. The Filipino-American community is largely Democratic, so I expect that there will be an outcry from them, stemming both from economic and civil liberties' grounds.

Will Duterte respond to their concerns and lobby Trump to go easy on them? From his remarks, I think Duterte does not seem to think much of the Fil-Am community and, in fact, sees them largely as critics of his policy of extrajudicial execution (though he does have supporters among them who are also—surprise, surprise Trumpistas). So he'll probably not act.

Coming: the New Isolationism?

Overall, I think the combination of Trump's election and Duterte's new diplomacy might accelerate the Philippines' distancing from Washington amid a broader reconfiguration of the US's relations with East Asia. 

We are entering uncharted territory here since the last time isolationism was a dominant political current in the US was in the 1920's and 1930's.  Trump, I think, may be the cutting edge of the New Isolationism. 

I abhor and fear Trump’s racist and sexist politics and strongly oppose President Duterte’s disregard of due process and human rights. When it comes to foreign policy, however, I think that, overall, the current conjuncture might have possibilities since our relationship with Washington under the Liberal Containment Strategy that has been America’s Grand Strategy for most of the Post-World War II period had become a very unhealthy, debilitating one for our country. 

I’d much rather have an isolationist America than an interventionist one, though I continue to hope that progressive forces, the Bernie Sanders forces, may eventually come to the fore there rather than the right-wing populist forces that the Trump campaign has unleashed. –


A former congressman, Walden Bello has written extensively on US foreign policy.  His publications include Dilemmas of Domination: the Unmaking of the American Empire (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).