Why you should care
Their leader likes Trump … and it turns out that the people of the Philippines do too.
Last November at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit dinner in Manila, standing before a crowd that included President Donald Trump, the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte crooned the words to a popular local love song: “You are the light in my world, a half of this heart of mine.” When the performance got a round of applause, the smooth-talking politician joked that the song choice was “upon the orders of the commander in chief of the United States.”
The mood was jovial, with Trump wearing a traditional, short-collared Barong Tagalog dress shirt. And why wouldn’t it be? As once-close allies show dismay at Trump’s presidency, the Philippines has held true. In fact, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center poll of 25 nations …
Donald Trump is trusted by 78 percent of Filipinos — a higher proportion than any other country.
That means Filipinos trust the U.S. president more than Americans do. Only 55 percent of Americans this year said they had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust and confidence in their leaders, according to Gallup. And that’s at a 10-year high. Meanwhile, 69 percent of Israelis, 28 percent of Britons and only 9 percent of French people had confidence in the U.S. president, according to Pew’s report.
Trump doesn’t get all the diplomatic credit here. Filipinos have long looked on their former colonizers favorably. Richard Heydarian, author of The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy, sees it as a sort of “collective amnesia” from a bloody past with Americans. After the U.S. took control of the Philippines from Spain following the Spanish-American War, it immediately faced Filipino independence fighters. As the U.S. wrested control between 1898 and 1903, tens of thousands of Filipinos died in combat while hundreds of thousands are thought to have perished from disease.
But after the U.S. foiled the revolution, it governed with a relatively soft hand compared to the Spanish. The U.S. left — in relative terms, of course — possibly the most “benign imperial legacy in Asia,” explains Heydarian. Educational opportunities increased with American-funded programs. And the country was protected militarily from others in the region. “The U.S. is broadly seen as a knight in shining armor” to Filipinos, Heydarian says.
The general feeling of goodwill toward the U.S. has carried on under the Trump presidency. Precilla Coloyan, a 29-year-old nurse from Cebu, a province in the Philippines, says she might be a little biased in her approval for Trump. She says she would often watch The Apprentice, appreciating his straight talk. “I like his personality. … So when I heard he was running, I was like, ‘Oh, cool. Just like Duterte.’”
She, like the majority of others in her country, also likes the populist Duterte. Public approval for Duterte’s performance was at 75 percent in September, according to the independent polling organization Pulse Asia. And that’s down from the high 80s over the summer — despite dismay both at home and abroad over the president’s violent drug war, which has left thousands dead, and his admission that he sexually assaulted his maid as a teenager. Coloyan found Trump and Duterte’s interaction with audiences to be similar: They are direct, don’t use “flowery words” and don’t make empty promises to constituents. (They both also share a catalog of statements seen as unpresidential.) “And to be honest,” she says, “I find [Trump] entertaining too.”
By and large, Coloyan’s countrymen who have migrated to the U.S. agree: Filipino-Americans supported Trump more than any other Asian group in the U.S.
But while the Philippines and the U.S. are friendly now, they were once closer. Despite the animosity between Duterte and former President Barack Obama — the Filipino president once called his American counterpart a “son of a whore” when Obama criticized his bloody drug war — 95 percent of Filipinos had confidence in Obama, according to Pew. When Trump entered office, that number dropped to 65 percent.
The Philippines is also pivoting — at least in policy — toward China. Duterte often praises Chinese President Xi Jinping as Chinese investment is promised. When Heydarian surveyed senior Filipino military officers, he found an increase in their willingness to cooperate with China. That was, he notes, despite China also being seen as the greatest threat to the country.
While Filipino policymakers would much rather deal with Americans, they have an increasingly pragmatic approach to China, says Heydarian. “China is a geographic reality, whereas the U.S. is a geopolitical anomaly. We don’t know how long the Americans are going to stay here,” says Heydarian. It comes down to a “credibility gap” in America’s willingness to stick by the Philippines, especially in military matters, he says. That pragmatism is likely a factor for the general population too. Sixty-seven percent of Filipinos in 2017 thought their country should have strong economic ties with China — up from only 43 percent in 2015, according to Pew. And while China has only a 55 percent approval rating with Filipinos, that’s an increase of 17 points since 2014.
For now, the Philippines could still be called America’s most trusted ally. And in the future, China may have the economic clout — but they won’t have The Apprentice.