Did Trump’s charm offensive work in the Philippines?

President Donald J. Trump is wrapping up a whirlwind tour of Asia, visiting five countries in 12 days. The trip revealed much about Trump’s style of diplomacy – one that focuses more on his personal relationships with world leaders than diplomatic relations between countries.

Both democratic and authoritarian leaders have been wooed by Trump’s charm offensive. He has highlighted his warm feelings toward China’s President Xi Jinping and tweeted that he tries “so hard to be [North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s] friend.”

Trump’s relationship with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, one of the first leaders welcomed to Trump Tower after the election, is “extraordinary,” according to the president.

This style of diplomacy certainly has its limitations, but could it actually improve the United States’ relationship with the Philippines – a key Southeast Asian ally?

Why we need our allies in Asia

On the campaign trail and in office, Trump has often criticized many of America’s allies for taking advantage of Washington’s generosity and not contributing more to their own national security. However, my research with Queen’s University political scientist Stefanie von Hlatky demonstrates that even when allies fail to share as much of the military burden as the United States would hope, they still make meaningful contributions to our military efforts overseas.

Our alliance relationships in Asia are based on a series of mutual defense treaties negotiated in the aftermath of World War II. The U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense treaty signed in 1951 focuses on the countries’ shared history of resistance against Japan’s “imperialist aggression” in the Pacific. It commits the two nations to mutual aid in defending against an external armed attack as part of a comprehensive system of regional security. Given the possibility of a future confrontation with China over the South China Sea, alliances with countries like the Philippines matter. After all, the Philippines provides access to regional bases and other logistical support.

New leaders, unexpected directions

Since the election of the populist Duterte in May 2016, the U.S.-Philippines alliance has been on rocky ground.

The Obama-Duterte relationship was full of tension stemming from the Obama administration’s criticism of Duterte’s violent war on drugs, which some claim has now led to approximately 13,000 deaths. Duterte showed no hesitation in calling out the United States for treating the Philippines like a colony, insulting Obama and musing that he might shift his foreign policy toward China and Russia and “break up with America.”