Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) have been in a war of words with the government of the Philippines, led by President Rodrigo Duterte. Allowed to fester, this conflict could threaten U.S.-Philippine relations and drive the Philippines closer to China.
At the end of 2019, Leahy and Durbin added explosive language to the national budget bill for the fiscal year 2020 that called for banning visits from Philippine officials involved with the prosecution of Philippine Senator Leila De Lima.
After the bill was passed in the U.S. Senate, Duterte, an outspoken nationalist leader, ordered his Bureau of Immigration to require U.S. nationals traveling to the Philippines to get visas if any official from the Philippines were actually denied entry to the United States. Duterte also banned Leahy and Durbin, as well as Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) from traveling to the Philippines, for their support of the De Lima provision.
De Lima vs. Duterte: It’s Not Our Fight
De Lima was arrested in 2017 under suspicion of having been involved in the country’s illicit drug trade. Most acknowledge, however, that Duterte more likely jailed de Lima because she opposes his administration.
De Lima has been vocal in her disapproval of Duterte’s long-running and bloody drug war. Human rights groups claim that the Duterte government is assassinating political opponents rather than killing drug dealers. Duterte, for his part, denies that he is wrongly persecuting De Lima and insists that she is involved with the narcotics trade.
“Rather than responding [to the Leahy-Durbin amendment to the 2020 U.S. national budget] by threatening to deny visas to American citizens, the Duterte government should either release Senator De Lima immediately or provide her the fair, public trial she is entitled to,” Leahy said in a statement. That’s a reasonable argument from the liberal senator from Vermont, but it’s also completely unhelpful.
Had Leahy relegated his remarks to the realm of lofty rhetoric that most American senators favor, he and Durbin could be forgiven for their nescience. Yet, by placing their amendment in the national budget bill, Leahy is ensuring that the already strained U.S.-Philippine relations will only get worse.
The One Where Leahy Serves Chinese Interests
If I were working the Philippines’ desk in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I would be ecstatic about Leahy’s amendment. Beijing desperately wants Manila in its back pocket as opposed to Washington’s. These are the stakes in any U.S.-Philippines spat.
Leahy and other earnest defenders of De Lima are helping to ensure that the Sino-Philippines relationship becomes closer at the expense of the U.S.-Philippines relationship.
Despite the fact that Duterte neither likes the United States nor shares our values, he does control a strategically vital country. With its deep-water ports and proximity to strategic areas of the Indo-Pacific, the Philippines is a geopolitical goldmine. Should Manila side with the far less judgmental Chinese government, then Beijing would score a huge win in its geopolitical competition with the United States for dominance in the Pacific.
Before Leahy and Durbin crafted their inane amendment in September 2019, Duterte said he was amenable to Chinese proposals to help develop the resource-rich Reed Bank off the coast of the Philippines. This was after the Americans supported Manila’s claims during a tense round of international arbitration between China and the Philippines over control of Reed Bank.
Meanwhile, three Chinese Navy ships were welcomed by the Philippine government on January 18. Commodore Wilfredo Burgunio, commander of the Philippine fleet said, “We welcome this visit. And we hope to have more engagements like this.”
These incidents are not enough to cause the outright destruction of the U.S.-Philippines relationship, which has endured since 1898. It’s also true that one can quibble as to whether or not the Leahy-Durbin amendment to the 2020 budget deal is the impetus for Manila’s recent flirtations with China. Even so, it is certain that Leahy and Durbin’s actions do not help the relationship.
Patrick Leahy, the Neo-Imperialist
While sad to see, the De Lima affair is an entirely internal political matter for the Philippines. As is their ongoing “drug war.”
When Duterte appeals to his people by accusing the Americans of engaging in neo-imperialism; when he argues that American leaders are infringing on the Philippines’ national sovereignty; and when many American leaders take actions harmful to the Philippines based entirely on American standards, obviously many Filipinos will listen to and side with Duterte.
Why do Leahy, Durbin, and so many of America’s political class think American leaders have the standing to interject their opinions and judgments into legislation dealing with the activities of a sovereign state? This is self-indulgent moral imperialism.
Washington must now compete against its rivals in China, Russia, and Iran for as much influence around the world as possible. In such a competition, hard-nosed realism, not airy moralism, must be America’s lodestar. No one has to applaud Duterte’s activities in the Philippines’ drug war. But attempting to condemn and punish them from where we are is both futile and dangerous to American interests.
The Leahy-Durbin amendment to the national budget for FY2020 is a strategic blunder. The Philippines is simply too important to be lost because self-righteous liberals have an attack of the “do-somethings.”
Western culture is distinct from the cultures of the East. Either Washington makes peace with those eternal cultural differences or it will help to ensure that China, not the United States, writes the destiny of the Pacific for the rest of the century, as leaders like Leahy and Durbin push potential allies into the waiting arms of American enemies.