Maybe some of those nameless bureaucrats at State decided to test if the potty-mouthed new leader of the Philippines is as tough as he says he is. Maybe they think that if they hit him where it hurts, by cutting off American aid to the Philippines, he’ll come running back to good ol’ Uncle Sam, the tried and tested dispenser of development assistance.
The United States has started turning the screws on the Duterte administration by withholding a large aid package on concerns about the rule of law and civil liberties. The decision of the Millennium Challenge Corp., a US Congress-funded agency, to defer approval of a new multi-million-dollar aid package for the Philippines also appears to be Washington’s way of finding out if President Rodrigo Duterte is really serious about embracing China and Russia and de-emphasizing the importance of traditional ties with our former colonial masters.
MCC was established by former President George W. Bush in 2004 “as a means of combating terrorism by funding development in poor nations under a strict neo-conservative free-trade model,” according to the American journalist Bill Conroy. The billion-dollar fund also fundamentally changed the way the US distributed aid to developing countries by making them compete for funds with others, using a set of criteria developed by “independent” groups such as the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.
Only last year, MCC said it had unanimously agreed to give the Philippines a second grant “in recognition of the policies on good governance” of close US ally President Noynoy Aquino. The announcement came ahead of the expiry last May of the first grant or “compact” of $434 million given to the Philippines, which was approved in 2010.
The first tranche of the MCC grant, worth $262 million, was spent for the Secondary National Roads Development Project to improve access to markets and services for farmers, fishermen and small businessmen. A second installment of $120 million was earmarked for poverty reduction programs while the third, for $54.3 million, went to the computerization and streamlining of business processes of the Bureau of Internal Revenue.
Now, with Duterte in power and pursuing not only a bloody war against illegal drugs but also shifting the Philippines’ focus away from the US and towards American rivals China and Russia, the MCC said the renewal of the aid package will be “subject to a further review of concerns around rule of law and civil liberties.” In other words, the US is challenging Duterte to a game of diplomatic “chicken,” in effect asking him to choose between the American way or the highway.
Prior to the MCC’s decision to defer the renewal of the Philippine aid compact, the US has been gamely declaring that there will be no fundamental change in the relationship between Manila and Washington. This despite Duterte’s widely-reported cussing out of outgoing President Barack Obama, his opposition to the continued presence of US military forces in the Philippines and his apparent ill-will towards Americans in general.
The State Department noted that the new Philippine leader’s verbal anti-American broadsides have never escalated to formal diplomatic action. So perhaps the Americans have decided that it’s time to find out if Duterte’s actions can match his overheated rhetoric by cutting off the MCC aid.
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Of course, the Americans may also discover, as not a few Filipinos have, that Duterte seems to enjoy proving his detractors wrong and that he will not back down from a fight. Instead of driving the Philippines back into the heart of the American geopolitical sphere of influence, Duterte may just decide to ratchet up the anti-US rhetoric and take his unabashed courtship of the Chinese and the Russians and his independent foreign policy to the next level.
The latest surveys, after all, have Duterte keeping his high trust rating among Filipinos, despite criticism of his campaign against illegal drugs. Never mind if the results of other polls show that Filipinos continue to hold the US in high regard and view other powers like China with a lot of suspicion.
Duterte has also consistently campaigned for improved economic and even military ties with the US’ rivals. His attempts to come up with a bilateral solution to the long-running dispute in the South China Sea and his plans to procure weapons and other military hardware from countries other than the US have led to comparisons with Josip Broz Tito, the Yugoslavian leader who famously played both the Russians and the Americans for the benefit of his countrymen.
But Duterte will need all the political skill that he has if he is to play with the big boys on the world stage. He cannot quail at the first sign of pressure from any of the major geopolitical actors.
The Americans have fired a shot across Duterte’s bow with the deferment of the new MCC fund grant. It’s now up to the new guy from Davao to show if he deserves to sit at the same table as the Americans, the Chinese and the Russians.