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Strategic Continuity in U.S.-Philippine Relations after November Election

November 7, 2012

In the closing days of what looked like a close U.S. electoral campaign for president, concern in the Philippines turned to what a victory for one candidate or the other might mean for U.S.-Philippine relations. Though election night turned out to be a rather quick and decisive electoral victory for President Barack Obama, even before election day, I had argued on Philippine TV that “Whoever wins in U.S. polls, Philippine-U.S. ties would be the same.”

ElectionNight2012

Obama greets supporters after being reelected on November 6. Despite the much-discussed “rebalance” of U.S. policy toward Asia, this was largely left out of election debates. Photo/flickr user pidge

The fact of the matter is that the 2012 election, like almost all presidential elections in the United States, was contested largely on the basis of domestic policy. One of the three presidential debates was supposed to be focused solely on foreign policy issues, but even in that one the moderator had to repeatedly plead that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney return from arguing about domestic issues (the economy or education) and focus on the topic at hand:  foreign policy. Actually, the candidates were not totally off-tangent, inasmuch as the vigor of the U.S. economy and society has obvious implications for how the United States conducts itself overseas – the size of the military force, how much development assistance can be provided, or international trade ties would all be affected if the country failed to recover quickly and sustainably from the global recession of the past years.

But a good reason for the candidates to switch back to domestic politics is because they did not actually disagree all that much about foreign policy. Commentators over the years have argued that Obama’s foreign policy approach has looked remarkably like his predecessor’s, and during the debate, Mitt Romney stated how he agreed with President Obama on a number of issues (sanctions in Iran, for instance).

Another remarkable thing about the foreign policy debate was how wide swathes of the world were not even mentioned in the course of 90 minutes. Slate‘s Matthew Yglesias published a map of the world based on topics discussed in the debate – no Europe, no Latin America, barely a mention of Africa. Asia was represented largely by Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China – no Japan, no South Asia below Pakistan, and absolutely no Southeast Asia. Of course, the map is a representation of what the presidential candidates think American voters care about – not necessarily what they think is important. So to answer the question of what, if any, foreign policy implications might be of the victory of one candidate or another, other analyses are needed.

The geopolitics facing any president in Asia is going to be the same, which is why there is so much consensus about the much-discussed “rebalance” of U.S. policy into more emphasis on Asia. There is agreement that Asia needs more attention, focus, and effort from the U.S.; the major point of discussion is whether the means to that end are sufficient and the resources available.

The Philippines is one of the countries central to this renewed U.S. focus on Asia. Inside the Beltway, in Washington, D.C., where I traveled last week, the discourse about the Philippines has changed, with a renewed focus on the country and its governance, growth, and security. But more generally, given the rise of China and disputes in the West Philippine/South China Sea, the Philippines can sometimes be seen as one participant in the general jostling among states in the region. Given this, some of the questions the two countries are likely to face in the next four years are:

  • In the West Philippine/South China Sea, there are definite dangers of accidental incidents involving fishing, undersea oil exploration, and general assertions of sovereignty. All parties (including those such as Vietnam) have stated a preference for peaceful resolution, with the Philippines seeking multi-lateral backing. How can the United States facilitate, for instance, greater ASEAN unity on this issue, and how can the Philippines tread a fine line between asserting its interests and being unnecessarily provocative?
  • The general security situation in the Philippines has taken a step forward with the recent signing between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro. What can the United States do to support a successful implementation of this agreement?
  • There will be other changes in the more general security relationship between the two countries. For instance, joint training with Australian troops may begin under a recently ratified Visiting Forces Agreement, and U.S. naval activities at the former U.S. base in Subic Bay may step up. Will Filipinos continue to support this broader security engagement and assistance?
  • The “rebalance” toward Asia has been criticized as too focused on “hard power,” with not enough attention given to such issues as trade. The Philippines is one of four countries in the world with which the United States has a Partnership for Growth. Will this and other initiatives increase Philippines-U.S. economic relations, and improve the Philippine economy?

Filipinos in the United States are not (as is often thought) overwhelmingly Democrat, but instead are as divided between the two parties as are Americans in general. In the Philippines, reaction to Obama’s re-election was muted, with congratulations to a familiar partner.

Before the election, when the Aquino Presidential Palace said that U.S.-Philippines relations would remain strong whichever candidate won, a newspaper headlined it as “Palace plays it safe.” Actually, this was a statement of fact.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines. He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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