What a Biden Presidency Means for PH

Should we expect the democrat to make substantial waves that will affect the Philippines? Here’s what experts think.

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Democratic nominee and career politician Joe Biden emerged victorious in the 2020 US elections against incumbent president Donald Trump. Biden’s road to the presidency was paved by a unified opposition against Trump who, since his ascent to the White House in 2016, has been criticized for his foul-mouthed remarks, divisive rhetoric, and precarious positions on various policies that affect the rest of the world.

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Trump’s infamous alliance with other populist leaders from other states, such as our own president Rodrigo Duterte, likewise created a chasm that felt bottomless for people across other countries. In 2017, Trump even phoned Duterte to express his support for the latter’s bloody drug war. “I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem,” Trump told Duterte. “Many countries have the problem . . . but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that.”

Both the strongman from Davao and the disgraced US president also share a certain animosity against established media institutions, echoing each other on their tirades on what they claim are antiadministration propaganda. Duterte’s and Trump’s continuous attacks may have had different effects on the institution itself (Duterte, for example, was able to close down a major network; Trump was not), but the distrust they triggered toward the media has resulted in a weakened journalistic ecosystem and, consequently, fractured democracies in their respective countries.

“US policies significantly affect Philippine policies,” says Cleve Arguelles, a political scientist researching Southeast Asian democracies. “Our domestic policy is partly (and historically) a product of policy developments in the US. . . . As one of the historically closest allies of the US in Asia, our foreign policy is also very responsive to US foreign policy trends.”

Biden’s win, then, would mark a monumental shift in the Philippine-American alliance, at least the one Duterte is accustomed to with his fellow populist leader Donald Trump. This could mean radical adjustments for the Duterte administration, especially on crucial topics such as human rights, which has suffered greatly under his regime.

However, the flipside is also possible: The country’s relationship with the United States can also make a bad turn.

“We know that Duterte is no fan of the Obama administration which Biden used to be part of as VP,” Arguelles relates. “I can imagine that Duterte wouldn’t like it that he would have to work now with an administration with similar values to that of Obama’s.”

Biden is also expected to take a firmer stand on the conflict against China, particularly on the South China Sea, a key economic battleground in the Indo-Pacific region. Trump may have positioned himself as anti-China recently due to the pandemic (on multiple occasions, he called coronavirus the “China-virus”), but he’s often seesawed when it comes to China-related issues, such as with his weak-kneed response to China’s crackdown on prodemocracy protests in Hong Kong. To the Trump administration’s point, however, they have pursued economic sanctions against China in his term, though critics, including Biden himself, believe that these are “erratic” and “self-defeating.”

“There won’t be a lot of difference, but a Biden administration will be more deliberate, strategic, and consistent than the Trump administration which has been erratic and unpredictable,” says Tony La Viña, a professor of law, politics and governance, and philosophy from the Ateneo de Manila University. “Trump may be anti-China now but that is less a principled stand than an opportunistic position. Once he cuts a deal with China, he would have abandoned us.”

Biden could also use his previous experience as VP for the Obama administration to leverage a better relationship with China, while concurrently increasing presence in the Asia-Pacific region to reestablish Washington’s dominance. This could be helpful for the Philippine’s row against Beijing, but only if both the Duterte and Biden administrations cooperate. As Arguelles noted, “given their differences on key issues, Duterte’s government may face a rather uncooperative, if not antagonistic, US government under Biden.” But the same can be true vice versa.

Biden will likely not turn a blind eye on Duterte’s attacks against democracy and human rights and manifest stronger actions against Duterte and his administration, while the latter may resist striking a healthy relationship with a democrat like Joe Biden and instead remain as Beijing’s ally.

“Human rights could be a sore point for Philippine-US relations as democrats generally are more aggressive on human rights than Republicans,” La Viña said. “Trump certainly liked and embraced dictators. Biden would not do that.”

A democrat holding the highest office in one of the most powerful countries in the world, however, holds immense symbolic value that could be difficult to ignore, even for Duterte.

Biden will have the power to wield the expansive economic influence of the White House to apply pressure on antidemocratic leaders of other countries if he wishes. If not, more radical democrats from both chambers of the House can push certain measures to counter the rise of populist leaders in other countries.

“There are standing proposals for democratic states to use their economic power to isolate populist leaders, whether thru trade restrictions or economic sanctions. We see this proposal in the EU parliament and in the US Senate. . . . Populist leaders, including Duterte, won’t really be able to survive for so long if economic privileges will be severely curtailed,” Arguelles said.

But more importantly, even without foreign sanctions, antipopulist sentiments and prodemocratic movements in the Philippines will feel a surge of renewed faith for the cause they are pushing for. Biden’s win injects inspiration to these movements, and that alone is significant.

“We expect the Americans to lead in world affairs, and domestic developments in the US occupy a special place in the public imagination of many Filipinos,” says Arguelles. “So changes in the kind of leadership in the US can potentially affect how Filipinos view the country’s leadership as well. Our democracy is American by design, and, historically also by aspiration.”

Trump’s presidency emboldened other like-minded leaders in other parts of the world not only by turning a blind eye on deliberate human rights violations and undemocratic policies to suppress activism and the media but also by directly expressing support toward them. In short, Biden’s victory is not only important because a democrat won — but also because Trump, and what he stands for, lost.

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“Trump’s defeat signifies to the rest of the world that our democracies, no matter how fragile, can also defeat populism,” Arguelles said. “This can energize anti-populist constituencies in the Philippines to dare to mobilize effectively and efficiently against the populist Rodrigo Duterte.”

But these effects may not be immediately felt by the Philippines. Trump’s presidency left a wreckage in the White House that will take Biden time to repair. For La Viña, the early actions we will see that will affect the Philippines will be on key issues such as the pandemic and climate change.

“[Biden’s win’s] biggest significance for the world, including the Philippines, is the return of the US to a more cooperative stance on big issues that threaten us all — climate change and the coronavirus pandemic,” La Viña said. “Biden bringing back the US to the Paris Agreement and to the WHO has huge significance and give us better odds on addressing these great challenges. For the Philippines, the climate change impact cannot be overemphasized having just seen 1/3 of Luzon devastated by a climate event.”

Add to this, Biden’s first sunrise in the White House will be against the backdrop of a volatile and highly divided people, so addressing other countries’ problems may take a backseat momentarily. His first days will likely focus on renewed economic plans, repairing diplomatic relationships with other giants, and ensuring control over their own coronavirus cases.

Trump’s presidency created fissures that will land squarely on Biden’s shoulders, necessitating great effort from the new president-elect. Biden will be confronted with the herculean task of convincing both political sides to engage in a period of healing and unite again under one flag.

Until their own dust settles, the results of the 2020 US elections only hold symbolic significance. And even when his regime eventually extends a hand, it can only do so much. The future of our country, whatever we aspire it to be, will still be decided by us. However, having a democratic ally in the White House gives Filipinos a glimpse of how things can be: that there’s possibility of reversing even the most powerful and most popular of leaders, if the people decide on it.

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