Image taken from The Philippine Star

In November last year, Donald Trump won the United States’ Presidential elections, consequently kickstarting a new US foreign policy. During his campaign, Trump advocated a domestic-focused America and a reduced global role - threatening to move away from traditional allies, pull away from defense treaties, and withdraw from trade negotiations and partnerships.

Initial Confusion in Asia Policy

Trump walked the talk last January when he signed an executive order pulling the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal. His withdrawal from the TPP signalled a possible political and economic vacuum which could potentially be exploited by China. On the other hand, he took a tough stance on China, calling the regional power a “currency manipulator” and threatening to impose high tariffs on Chinese goods.

Trump’s Cabinet appointees added to the confusion on what kind of foreign policy the next administration will choose to execute.

Now-confirmed US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, during his confirmation hearing, made a strong statement on the South China Sea issue when he said that China should be denied access to the islands in the contested South China Sea. Beijing was not pleased  and Global Times, a state-sanctioned tabloid, wrote that Tillerson’s plan to block China from its islands would mean waging a large-scale war in the South China Sea. Subsequently, Tillerson’s written responses to a member of the confirmation hearing showed a toned down rhetoric toward China.

During a visit to Beijing last March, Tillerson even adopted a friendly tone, indicating that the US was willing to set aside major issues between US and China such as the North Korean nuclear problem or the South China Sea territorial dispute; he instead highlighted the smooth transition towards a new chapter of US-China cooperation.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, on the other hand, provoked the Chinese during a visit to Japan, when he reassured Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that obligations under the US-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty include the Senkakus, a group of islands being disputed by Japan and China. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang called on the US to avoid discussing the Senkakus and reasserted Chinese sovereignty over the islands.

US Reassures Allies in the Region

These inconsistent statements by the Trump administration sent allies worrying about the certainty of US commitment to Southeast Asia. However, what followed  the initial confusion during the government transition were measures by the Trump administration to immediately engage allies in the region.  

In early February, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited South Korea and Japan in an effort to assure the two allies of Washington’s support. The two countries are embroiled in security concerns over North Korea’s belligerent behavior and China’s territorial claims in the East China Sea.

Come March, it was Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s turn to visit Asia. Japan and South Korea were still part of his Asian trip but China was added to his itinerary. The trip was meant for Tillerson to engage allies and partners on a range of issues and come up with coordinated strategies to address them.

In April, US Vice President Michael Pence visited South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, and Australia. This is the third time a high-level official from the Trump administration had gone on an Asian Trip.

All visits by the three US government officials included key security allies Japan and South Korea, expectedly due to the looming nuclear problem in the Korean peninsula. The visits were part of a US effort to secure trust among allies that the US has not bailed on its commitment to stability in Asia Pacific.

What do these mean for Philippines?

Significant improvements have yet to unfold in PH-US relations, but the abovementioned trips already signalled to other US allies and partners, including the Philippines, that US remains committed to East Asian stability and security. It would seem that Trump might continue the foreign policy course of the Obama administration of taking care of its allies and maintaining an active presence in the region. Following the latest missile test by North Korea in April, the Pentagon deployed its aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson along with a guided missile cruiser and two destroyers, to the Korean Peninsula.

The Philippines, under President Rodrigo Duterte, has also taken a new foreign policy approach when it comes to its relationships with the world’s big powers. It veered away from the US, with Duterte even announcing his ‘separation’ from the US while on a State visit to China in October 2016. Since then, Duterte sought to improve relations with China and has received pledges of loans and investments totalling US$24 billion dollars, mainly for infrastructure development. Under Duterte, the Philippines appears to have set aside the territorial disputes (including a hard-won arbitration case against China) in favor of economic assistance.

With regards to the US, although the Obama administration had a rocky relationship with President Duterte during the latter’s early months in office,  the election of Donald Trump opened windows for the two governments to mend ties. Duterte was one of the first leaders to congratulate Trump on winning the US presidential elections.

This positive beginning was reinforced during a second phone conversation in April as the 30th ASEAN Summit was ending in Manila, at which President Trump reportedly reaffirmed the PH-US alliance and his interest in developing a ‘warm working relationship with President Duterte.’ The two leaders are set to meet in Manila in November for the East Asia Summit.

Furthermore, despite the souring of Philippines-US relations towards the end of the Obama administration, Philippine ties with Japan remained strong, or perhaps even grew stronger. During Duterte’s Japan visit in October of last year, he described Japan as a “special friend who is closer than a brother” and told a Japanese audience he would stand by Japan’s side in the contentious issue of the South China Sea. This new friendship resulted in Japan pledging up to $ 8.7 billion worth of investments as well as speedboats and counterterrorism equipment, when Abe visited the Philippines in January of this year.

Duterte’s continued relationship with Japan, a close US ally, is a good sign for Philippines-US ties. Japan is an important link for US and the Philippines, one that the world’s only superpower can use to sway the Philippines in matters related to US interests in the region.

Not much has happened yet with regard to any new initiatives by Trump toward the Philippines. The US is not just distracted by the North Korean problem but also with other issues around the globe such as the Syrian crisis. But considering the active execution of US foreign policy in Asia in recent months, we can expect US and its allies to woo the Philippines and try to steer it away from China.

The Philippines has been a key ally of US for decades and has long been considered strategic for US military presence in the region. The signing of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement in 2014 provided the US military with wide access to Philippine military bases and allowed the US to station more troops, ships, and planes on a rotational but more frequent basis. US will not easily let go of this advantage. On the part of the Philippines, it also needs US help to ensure stability and security in the region.

A new US foreign policy in the region?

US is not likely to disengage from the Philippines or the region any time soon. It will remain an Asia Pacific power, especially because its interests in the region remain. The North Korean nuclear problem endangers key allies Japan and South Korea who therefore need continued US security assurance against the North Korean threat.   Absence of US in the Asia Pacific, moreover, will leave the region without any credible deterrent to China’s ambitions. China has been assertive with its claims over disputed features in the South and East China Sea and has indicated that it may be willing to use military force as well as its economic leverage to get what it wants. The allies of the US therefore play key roles in maintaining stability in the region, which is in the interest of the United States.

The issues facing the Trump administration now are the same issues his predecessors had to handle. But US’ Asia Policy under Trump’s ‘America First’ maxim is certain to approach Asia with a different set of priorities. As North Korea continues with its nuclear program and missile tests, the US will need China, probably the only country that the North Korean leadership might listen to, in order to reach Pyongyang. But China in turn is embroiled in the South China Sea issue against other claimant states which are also US allies or new security partners. China has been called out several times for its assertive actions towards other claimants in the SCS dispute.

The US needs to determine which issue is its current priority in the region, and may need to set aside managing the other for a later time. Given the imminent threat in the Korean Peninsula and the high level of attention by US government officials, it appears that the Korean nuclear problem is the more pressing concern for the US. This may mean that the US needs to formulate a new policy or approach towards the Duterte government if it is to successfully pull Duterte away from his growing closeness to China, even as the US works with China on the North Korea issue.