The United States (US) has a far-reaching influence on global affairs, with changes in leadership often signaling a shift in international relations. Last January 20, the world witnessed the inauguration of US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, and immediately after came a series of executive orders that had both domestic and international implications.
In the context of the Philippines, shared security interests, among other policies, are at stake due to conflicting perspectives from Biden and President Rodrigo Duterte. Regardless, concerns remain over how Biden will address the pressing issues between the two nations, such as the stalled scrapping of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), the ongoing human rights abuses, and over how his electoral victory over a populist leader like Donald Trump may influence the 2022 elections.
With Biden now in power, advancing the Philippines’ different national security interests remains crucial. Dr. Renato De Castro, a full professor from the International Studies Department who specializes in foreign relations for both the Philippines and the US, highlights Biden’s emphasis on multilateralism, a shift from Trump’s “America First” policy which brought tension between the US and other countries. He sees the Philippines-US relationship as a “transactional” one—with America expecting a “degree of loyalty” from the Philippines as one of its allies.
Trump and Duterte were “more aligned” in their approach toward foreign policy, highlights Dr. Gina Lomotan, an assistant professor from the Political Science Department, as the two leaders “share some characteristics in terms of conduct of policy, both at the domestic and at the international level,” particularly on how both prefer to take hardline stances. These shared views have allowed the Philippines to maintain a “very close” relationship with the US.
Now that Biden is in charge, Lomotan does not expect any significant changes in relations but more of a shift in approach. “Biden has been quite open to being a healing leader, as he calls himself before the American electorate, but I think this extends to foreign policies as well,” she explains.
Although conflicting perspectives may arise between Duterte and Biden, De Castro believes that both the Philippines and the US will exert “extra efforts” to develop the existing alliance.
Last year, the abrogation of the VFA was initially set on August 9, but due to the ongoing pandemic, it was suspended for six months—twice—for the Philippines and the US to reach an amenable negotiation. De Castro argues that changes are expected as the US desires to “maintain status quo and dual jurisdiction over servicemen”.
“It’s the Armed Forces of the Philippines who basically told Duterte to maintain that alliance,” he adds, noting that Duterte had long been skeptical of the treaty’s importance. “But after I think, five years in office, he realized that Philippine national security could only be enhanced by maintaining the alliance with the United States simply because we don’t have the military capability to defend ourselves.”
Championing human rights
Biden has shown indications that there will be an emphasis on alliance, which De Castro expounds is “not only in terms of utilitarian elements, meaning we’re against a party that supports China, but also in terms of human rights, democracy, rule of law, and so forth.”
Under the new administration, Biden will be very particular about how the Philippines handles human rights concerns, Lomotan says.
De Castro thus suggests to the Duterte administration to release Sen. Leila de Lima, whose prolonged detention has been a “lightning rod” drawing attention, especially from the Democratic Party. In 2020, the US Congress passed a resolution calling for Philippine government officials responsible for de Lima’s detention to be blacklisted, banning their entry into the US and freezing their US assets. The resolution invoked the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the US government to sanction foreign government officials of any country implicated in human rights violations.
Still, Lomotan supposes that Biden will be more open. She believes his foreign policy might be characterized by being more approachable and more tolerant of opposing perspectives.
To make retaining the VFA more plausible, Lomotan says the US must maintain robust diplomatic relations with the Philippines. “They will adopt a wait-and-see attitude,” she explains. “It’s a matter of getting to know each other again under the new leadership of the new US President Joe Biden. So give or take it a few more months, we can expect a stronger voice from the US in terms of his (Biden’s) concern for human rights to the Philippines.”
Following Biden’s presumptive victory last November, #Halalan2022 and the words “Tayo naman” trended on Philippine social media, fueled by hopes among Filipinos that they may vote in more competent leaders in the upcoming 2022 presidential elections.
(It’s our turn.)
Lomotan attributes Biden’s win to the high voter turnout, which she says signifies that the American people were invested in the outcome of the elections. With this, she recommends that Filipinos, especially the youth, complete voter registration.
She also highlights the need to have educated voters who can ensure that the candidates they choose have a good track record in leadership and service. Educating voters on the value of confronting national issues, she adds, also encourages them to choose the kind of leadership that they want and overcome the “prevailing” attitude that they need a populist leader.
“Do not underestimate the power of an educated electorate,” Lomotan summarizes.
But beyond having informed voters, there is also a need to have better candidates to choose from. Lomotan says that a post-COVID-19 recovery will require an inclusive leader that is willing to listen to different stakeholders and has a concrete plan of action.
“He’s (Biden) a team player and he listens well,” she says, positing that he formulated his leadership approach when he served as vice president under former US President Barack Obama. “Because he listened well to his constituents, he was able to match the rhetoric with what the American voters were looking for.”
For Lomotan, what matter in an elected official are leadership, track record, and credibility. “If you want to run for public office, make sure all those are present,” she declares.