President Duterte during the ceremonial transfer of Certificate of Authority from US Deputy Chief of Mission John Law to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana. Source: US-PH Society
The much-awaited homecoming of the three Balangiga church bells signify United States’ resolve to reset relations with its former colony and longtime ally. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s tirades against the West and efforts to diminish the country’s over reliance on America by expanding ties with other major powers, including U.S. rivals China and Russia, unsettled bilateral relations since 2016. The U.S. obviously wants to check Philippines’ increasing tilt towards Beijing and the bells’ repatriation, albeit symbolic and long overdue, is a clear and solid step towards this. Nonetheless, while such a hallmark move is welcome, it may have marginal effect in countering the core of burgeoning Philippines-China ties which remain firmly grounded on economic convergence. Instead, the bells’ return will have greater utility as a platform to restore high-level political ties and cement U.S. position as Manila’s pre-eminent security partner, a position being challenged by Beijing’s foray into security goods provision.
Duterte asked for the bells’ return in high profile fashion in his 2017 State of the Nation Address. Philippine ambassador to the U.S. Jose Manuel Romualdez also said that Duterte requested the same from U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis back in October 2017 as the retired marine corps general attended the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM+) in the former U.S. airbase of Clark. Furthermore, as the strategic Southeast Asian maritime country shops for arms for its military modernization, even considering purchasing from Russia, Duterte said that any arms procurement from U.S. will be premised upon the bells’ return. Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. mentioned that Duterte will never visit the U.S. until the bells are returned. Hence, with the precondition satisfied, there is an expectation that Duterte will soon accept President Trump’s invitation to visit Washington. More importantly, if the bells’ homecoming can be considered a bellwether for the future of bilateral relations in a fast changing geopolitical landscape, there is cause for optimism.
Past Philippine leaders, including West Point graduate Fidel Ramos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, a former classmate of Bill Clinton at Georgetown University lobbied for the bells’ repatriation. But their efforts were in vain. Ironically, it took an uncouth former mayor who long harbored misgivings about the U.S. to trigger the bells’ eventual comeback. But the unassuming Duterte refrainedfrom claiming recognition. Instead, he accorded what he described as an act that restored Filipino dignity to the “generous act of the Americans”, adding that credit goes to the people of both countries. More than a century after being snatched, the bells returned in time for Christmas to call the faithful in the Eastern Samar town. For this historic event which will surely be remembered as a legacy of the Duterte administration, the U.S. not only earned the goodwill of the Filipino people; it also restarted bilateral relations on an elevated plane.
When Duterte set the bells’ repatriation as the floor for the restoration of high-level political ties, both sides’ diplomatic and security establishment set out to work. This contributed to a change in the President’s attitude towards a possible state visit. In July 2017, in response to threats from some U.S. solons who claimed they will block his visit, the former Davao mayor said he will never visit “lousy” America. A year later, he mellowed and remarked that such a visit is just a matter of scheduling.
The specter of protests from rights groups and some members of U.S. Congress opposed to his signature drug war continue to loom large during a possible Duterte visit. Sensitivity to criticisms about his war against drugs was actually one of the major reasons why the firebrand leader eschewed the invitation in the first place. But the bells’ return removed the impediment for such a visit. Besides, Duterte will not be the first controversial Southeast Asian leader to enter the White House. President Donald Trump previously hosted scandal-hit former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, Thai junta leader Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha and undemocratic Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.
Notwithstanding the efforts of veterans groups, the Catholic Church, and civil society, the official top level push was pivotal in putting to rest one of the long-running irritants in the two countries’ 72-year relations. U.S. officials, notably Secretary Mattis and U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim, prevailed over those who opposed the bells’ rightful return. Former Philippine defense attache to U.S. and current Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also worked hard for the bells’ repatriation and maintenance of longstanding security ties. While Duterte already had his third Foreign Affairs Secretary amidst frequent Cabinet revamps midway into his term, Lorenzana remained a steady figure in the defense establishment. This suggests Duterte’s desire to keep the alliance despite his rhetorical bluster. With the echoes of the symbolic ringing of one Balangiga bell tattooed on his mind, the intensity of verbal tirades against the US are also likely to subside.
A few days before Christmas, former Philippine Permanent Representative to the United Nations and currently Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. met his American counterpart, State Secretary Mike Pompeo in Washington. The two chief diplomats discussed cooperation in addressing terrorism and regional flashpoints, notably the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea. Locsin also conveyed Duterte’s appreciation for the bells’ return.
Recent calls for the review of the 1951 Philippines-United States Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) may be seen as a further disruption in bilateral relations. However, that disruption may turn out well for both sides if provisions of the treaty, which serves as the bedrock of the two countries’ security ties, will be evaluated to keep up with the changing times. As the mother document for subsequent bilateral security arrangements, notably the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement and the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, the review will have far reaching implications for the security partnership. There is also expectation that a strengthened treaty will enhance the country’s deterrence and commit the U.S. more to evolving Philippine security requirements. Hence, the return of the bells may have just paved the way for a conducive climate to update the anchor of one of the world’s most enduring alliances.