President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte had a phone call on Friday with controversial President Elect of the USA, Donald Trump. Despite Trump’s openly xenophobic views, and tacit dislike for people of non-white, non-American extraction, Duterte was encouraged by the conversation. Duterte has stated that he felt a ‘rapport’ with Trump, and believes that a profitable future friendship could burgeon between the Philippines and the USA once Trump comes into office. If true, this would be a welcome development, as Duterte and President Obama have had something of a rocky history, leading to strained relations between the two nations in the past. Closer ties to the USA could lead to great things for Filipino businesses, and for the economy of the Philippines in general.
One reason for Duterte’s and Trump’s ‘rapport’ may stem from the fact that both are seen as controversial figures in the USA. Trump’s history of dodgy business dealings, misogyny, insurance scams (many reputable insurers simply won’t touch Trump’s businesses due to concerns about his honesty), bankruptcy, fraud, and hatemongering (combined with the outright bigotry of many of his supporters) has led to widespread dismay in the USA at his Presidential win. Duterte, meanwhile, has drawn criticism for what are seen as human rights abuses during the pursuance of his anti-drug policy, as well as his outspoken and frequently insulting attitude towards other world leaders. After telling President Obama to “go to hell”, relations between the Philippines and the USA have rather broken down. While the American economy is not what it was, and the economy of the Philippines is in the ascendant, losing trading viability with a nation and an economy the size of the USA still represents a blow to many businesses in the Philippines. If both these controversial figures can build a good relationship, it’s likely that the vast resources of the USA will open up to the Philippines, with lucrative trade deals and preferential treatment possibly on the cards.
Duterte and Trump do, on the face of it, have much in common. Both have expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and both have sought to strengthen their nation’s ties with Russia. The two differ in their attitudes to China – Duterte has alarmed many Filipinos by pursuing ties with China (a nation with which Manila has something of a fraught history), while Trump appears to be going out of his way to offend Chinese authorities – but their desire for friendship with Russia is identical. The two are also similarly outspoken, and, according to Duterte, Trump supports and endorses his zero-tolerance policy on drugs. Nonetheless, Trump has promised to legalize marijuana in the USA, and to slowly wind down America’s ‘War On Drugs’ when in office – something very much out of sync with Duterte’s own attitude. Perhaps the most common ground these two figures can find is that of personality. Both are maverick figures, both have a reputation for outspokenness, both are good at offending other world leaders, and both are controversial figures at home and abroad. They are also prepared to take extreme measures to achieve their aims for their nations. This may not seem like a great basis for a profitable working relationship, but international relations surprisingly often rely on personalities chiming with one another.
A Long Way To Go
If the Philippines and the USA are to have a good business relationship, however, there is still much to be done to repair ties between the two nations. Trump has been notably less enthusiastic than Duterte about the prospect, and Duterte is still given to vocal criticism of the USA’s ‘hypocritical’ and ‘bullying’ culture. It will take considerable diplomacy and a lot of feather-smoothing to repair broken ties. The absence of Obama – with whom Duterte did not get on at all – is likely to help things, but American businesses will need some convincing that Duterte (and, by extension, his nation) is not the volatile and risky proposition they believe him to be. Duterte has announced plans to visit Washington in 2017, to visit President Trump and work on relations between the two nations. If Duterte and Trump get on as well in person as they did on the phone, there could be profitable times ahead. If not – well, Trump is known to be even less forgiving than Obama, so who knows what could happen?