Like Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, United States President Donald Trump is known as a brash and divisive figure. It is thus somewhat ironic that Trump possesses the unique potential to mend Filipino-American relations, which were fractured under former U.S. President Barack Obama and his Administration. Whether or not Trump accomplishes this could have ramifications regarding everything from international trade partnerships to available immigration opportunities for Filipinos striving to live, work, or study in the U.S.
It is no secret that Obama has had difficulty maintaining his country’s traditionally-close ties to the Philippines since Duterte’s 2016 election. Duterte has notoriously referred to Obama as a “son of a whore” who can “go to hell,” while splitting with his country’s longstanding Western ally by forging a partnership with China. In response, Obama had given credence to the perception that the Filipino leader as a loose-cannon, canceling a significant meeting between the leaders stating, “What I’ve instructed my team to do is to talk to their Philippine counterparts to find out: Is this in fact a time where we can have constructive, productive conversations?”
Whereas Obama had yet to indicate that it would in fact be productive to engage in talks with Duterte—with Filipino-American relationship becoming more distant all the while—Trump has assumed a different approach.
In November, the Filipino President called Trump to congratulate him on his victory. At some point during their seven-minute phone conversation, Trump purportedly invited Duterte to the White House. If true, this invitation underscores the notion that Trump is willing to overlook Duterte’s slights to the U.S. and its former President in order to move forward.
Obama and his administration had taken Duterte’s comments and actions to heart. For example, the Obama Administration had repeatedly condemned Duterte’s “drug war,” and frozen diplomatic relations as a result. By comparison, Trump has purportedly gone so far as to wish Duterte “success” in his effort.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Duterte has expressed much more willingness to work with Trump than Obama. Regarding the U.S. President, Duterte has said, “We don’t have any quarrels. I can always be a friend to anybody especially to a president, a chief executive of another country. He has not meddled in the human rights.”
It is not only that Trump has not “meddled” in human rights issues. Trump and Duterte share in common a carefully-constructed strongman image. Both leaders have gone to significant lengths to portray themselves as lone solutions to existential threats. Trump has repeatedly claimed that he will bring about “law and order” in the U.S. even if it means skirting the American Constitution, while Duterte has waged a “drug war” in a country that has reportedly seen drug use fall significantly, and to marginal levels, in the years prior to his Presidency. Both politicians see the primary solutions to these complicated problems as being punitive, which in turn furthers the narrative of them being tough on crime.
Their similar political perspectives seemingly open up the door for solidarity between the leaders, as their aforementioned congratulatory conversation might indicate. If one can possibly cast legit concerns about human rights aside, the implications of such solidarity are vast. Even in the context of withering American-Filipino relations, trends suggest that issues such as Filipino immigration will persist, and even increase. Should Trump manage to bridge gaps between the Duterte-led Philippines and the U.S., there is even more potential for these continuously-growing opportunities.
However, one must remain cautiously optimistic. After all, Trump has offered indications that he might not be the diplomatic statesman and loyal ally he purports himself to be. This is exemplified by his statements and perspective on the Ukraine, an allied member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Despite Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his military (and paramilitary) invading the Ukraine, in direct and obvious violation of its sovereignty, Trump has repeatedly offered admiration for Putin, whose government has also been accused of helping to sway the U.S. election towards Trump. To forsake an established NATO ally such as the Ukraine in favor of an invading, non-allied force that has what can at-best be described as a checkered relationship with the U.S., does not lend itself to trustworthiness on the international stage.
Thus, neutral observers of Filipino-American relations must wonder whether Trump will prove to be a consistent ally, or one who will turn his back on the Philippines if doing so is deemed to be politically expedient. It is after all unclear how Trump would regard the Philippines if it meant altering tenuous relations with China or other larger players in the economically-robust region.
Ultimately, the Obama Administration’s diplomatic difficulties with the Philippines offer clues as to the ramifications of Filipino-American relations turned south. It seems that trade is the biggest casualty of a fraught relationship, whereas Filipino immigration to the U.S. is poised to remain consistent.
There is however reason to believe that Filipino-American relations will improve. While Trump’s relationship with the Philippines remains a considerable question mark, his potential solidarity with Duterte—as evidenced by their similar strongman images and apparent willingness to look past due process as it correlates to human rights—signifies potential willingness to reestablish open and productive relations.