Webinar on “The Philippines-US Alliance after Duterte: Strategic Agenda and Directions”

In this webinar, Dr Charmaine Misalucha-Willoughby, Mr Julio S. Amador III, and Mr Gregory B. Poling unpacked the current state of the Philippines-US alliance and examined the legacies of Duterte’s foreign and security policy, candidate platforms for the 2022 presidential elections, and the prospects of the alliance in the post-Duterte political dispensation.


Friday, 25 March 2021 – The May 2022 elections in the Philippines could herald a turning point for the Philippine-US alliance. The bilateral relationship under President Rodrigo Duterte has been tumultuous, characterised especially by Duterte’s distrust of Washington and his willingness to accommodate Beijing. The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute hosted Dr Charmaine Misalucha-Willoughby, Mr Julio S. Amador III, and Mr Gregory B. Poling in an online panel discussion to discuss “The Philippines-US Alliance after Duterte: Strategic Agenda and Directions”. Dr Misalucha-Willoughby is an Associate Professor in the International Studies Department of De La Salle University in Manila, Philippines; Mr Amador is a former civil servant in the Philippine Government and currently the Interim President of the Foundation for the National Interest, a new Philippine think-tank that focuses on strategic and security issues; and Mr Gregory B. Poling is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he directs its Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

The panel consisted of Dr Charmaine Misalucha-Willoughby, Mr Julio S. Amador III and Mr Gregory B. Poling. The session was moderated by Dr Aries Arugay. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Misalucha-Willoughby described the US alliance system as being “in need of upkeep”. The long-time endurance of the San Francisco system (or better known as the hub-and-spokes model) in the Indo-Pacific may testify to its effectiveness, but there are concerns that it may not be adequate to negotiate more contemporary strategic and security challenges. The San Francisco system ultimately reflected the realities of the post-1945 world, in which the United States pursued bilateral alliances that complemented and strengthened multilateral frameworks. In doing so, regional allies can guarantee the US strategic presence in their neighbourhood, while the United States can ensure that they have sufficient allied support to counter the Soviet threat as well as the leverage to prevent over-zealous anti-communist leaders in the region from dragging Washington into a war.

However, Dr Misalucha-Willoughby observed that the hub-and-spokes system as a normative model of engagement is increasingly under challenge. Some of these challenges come in the form of “applicatory contestations”, in which there is a growing preference for “more fluid” and “broader” partnerships, rather than formal alliances. However, she explains that applicatory contestations can strengthen the norm of hub-and-spokes engagement. The turn to more “nimble” partnerships that are better suited to deal with particular and specific issues of common concern does not undermine the San Francisco system so much as indicates its adaptability. However, Dr Misalucha-Willoughby is more concerned about “validity contestations” against the hub-and-spoke model, which calls into question the “veracity of the US role in the region”, especially considering China’s rising dominance. To this, she suggested that it is important to develop “self-narratives” – stories about ourselves that we tell ourselves and others, and which affects how we treat others – that “complement the alliance narrative”.

Mr Amador noted that while China has sought to weaken the US-Philippine alliance, the cooperation between Manila and Washington has not been extensive and has primarily focussed on counterterrorism and dealing with grey-zone activities. He argued that the United States and the Philippines must operationalize and scale up their major strategic needs, including through joint exercises. Making progress with the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (ECDA) is imperative and US-funded military infrastructure construction must be sustained. Moreover, Mr Amador emphasized the need for better alliance management: Washington must determine how it wants to engage the Philippines, while Manila must be clear about its expectations. Furthermore, the two countries need to expand their cooperation. The United States, for instance, needs an economic footprint to go along with its security presence. Meanwhile, the Philippines ought to complete the modernization of its armed forces, to fulfil its share of the obligations under the Mutual Defence Treaty.

Mr Polling characterized the US-Philippine alliance as the “odd one out” in the US alliance system, especially in the post-Cold War environment when it entered into “a period of strategic drift”. While the United States’ alliance with NATO, Japan, Australia and South Korea have been rejuvenated by new or long-existing security threats, it is difficult to identify the “shared threat” that holds together the US-Philippine alliance. Though Manila and Washington entered into a Visiting Forces Agreement as a reaction to China’s aggressive behaviour and to support counterterror and intelligence operations, such cooperation “doesn’t make an alliance” since it lacks the fundamental element of alliance-making: the notion of mutual obligations. Moreover, Since the expulsion of US forces from Subic Bay, both sides have been contented to “muddle through”. The past five years of Duterte have also stalled any progress that could have been brokered under EDCA, though some nascent headway has been made in the previous year (including the negotiation of a new set of common defence guidelines, infrastructure construction, and dialogue over grey-zone tactics). Mr Polling reiterated the importance of sustaining these efforts under the new administration in a way that will lead to “new conclusions”, including an agreement on mutual obligations. Furthermore, an equitable alliance would necessitate both sides assuming obligations. This means that in return for US security assistance in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), Manila must be prepared to be involved to aid the United States in contingencies outside the WPS.

During the Q&A session with an audience of 200, the panel fielded several queries about the possible role of foreign policy and the US-Philippine alliance in the ongoing electoral campaign, the diplomatic consequences of Manila’s “neutral” stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the impact of US economic statecraft, the possibility of revising the Mutual Defence Treaty and the foreign policymaking prospects of a possible Marcos administration.

The webinar was well-attended with 200 participants. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)