A proposed United States travel ban against top Philippine officials, including members of President Rodrigo Duterte’s inner circle accused of rights abuses, threatens to torpedo bilateral strategic ties in 2020.

In a symbolic move, Duterte’s office recently said he would officially decline US President Donald Trump’s standing invitation for a White House meeting, making him the first leader in memory to boycott the nation’s sole treaty ally.

The targeted sanction, included as a provision in the US’ Fiscal Year 2020 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill, was signed into law in December by Trump and will come into force later this year.

The measure is consistent with the 2018 Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA), which “allows for the visa ban and other appropriate sanctions in the United States against foreigners involved in abuses and human rights violations.”

The proposed sanctions are the initiative of several senior Democratic senators, including Edward Markey (Massachusetts) Patrick Leahy (Vermont) and Richard Durbin (Illinois), who have openly criticized human rights abuses related to Duterte’s lethal drug war and assaults on democratic institutions during his three-year-old tenure.

In particular, they have called for an end to the years-long detention of Senator Leila de Lima, a former justice secretary and staunch critic of Duterte’s drug war held on widely seen as trumped up drug charges. Her trial on the charge has been persistently delayed.

The exact list of targeted Filipino officials, as well as prominent pro-Duterte propagandists and bloggers, remains unclear, though is believed to center on those accused of persecuting De Lima and other drug war critics.

Philippine Senator Leila De Lima (C), a top critic of President Rodrigo Duterte, is escorted by police after her arrest at the Senate in Manila on February 24, 2017. Photo: Ted Aljibe/AFP

In response, Manila retaliated with an unprecedented travel ban against several top American legislators, including the three mentioned senators, and a threat to cancel the country’s longstanding visa-free arrangement for American citizens.

Philippine Senator Richard Gordon, a staunch Duterte ally, characterized the US travel ban as an “an intrusion on the internal affairs of our country.”

Duterte has made several visits to America’s regional competitors, including at least five visits to China and two to Russia, underscoring a major shift in the Philippines’ strategic direction under his rule.

Trump’s combination of personal rapport and ideological alignment with the authoritarian Filipino leader had earlier facilitated a recovery in ties that famously frayed under the predecessor Barack Obama administration.

Duterte openly acknowledged in 2018 that “Strained relation[s] – I will admit it – with America, started with Obama. Trump is cleaning the mess.”

The Filipino leader had threatened to abrogate the Philippines’ mutual defense treaty alliance with the US over the Obama administration’s rights-related criticisms, including in relation to Duterte’s lethal war on drugs.

But Trump’s earlier vow to no longer “seek to impose our way of life on anyone” was received well in Manila, which “welcome[d] President Trump’s [new] foreign policy direction” towards a “placid and mutually beneficial relationship.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) and US President Donald Trump (R) at the ASEAN Summit in Manila, November 13, 2017. Photo: AFP/Pool/Mark R Cristino

During their first bilateral meeting in 2017, on the sidelines of a summit held in Manila, the two leaders reportedly had a “very friendly conversation.”

Trump reportedly even praised Duterte’s scorched-earth drug war as “[a] very hard [effort] to rid its country of drugs, a scourge that affects many countries around the world” at their meeting.

The Duterte-Trump bromance led to a steady, if not quiet, recovery in defense relations, seen in the restoration of joint war games in the South China Sea, expanded American access to Philippine strategic bases under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), and nearly 200 annual joint defense activities and exercises in 2019, the highest among America’s partners in the Indo-Pacific.

In particular, those revived ties have bolstered the US’s position in the South China Sea, a contested sphere where the US and China are jousting for dominance.

But US congressmen are now putting rights above strategic issues with the enactment of the punitive law, providing China a new opportunity to consolidate its already considerable influence over Duterte.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (R) toast during a state banquet at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila, November 20, 2018. Photo: AFP/Pool/Mark R Cristino

US Senator Durbin welcomed the passage of their proposed provisions against top Filipino officials over his Twitter feed.

“Glad to see the amendment I passed with [Senator Leahy] restricting US visas to all those involved in the troubling detention of Filipina Senator Leila de Lima included in the final FY20 appropriations bill. It’s time for her politically motivated imprisonment to come to an end,” he tweeted.

Duterte had earlier hoped to forestall tensions with Washington on De Lima’s detention, saying in October he would only speak to the issue when it became “ripe.”

Targeted Filipino officials are in denial. Last month, former Philippine police chief and current senator Bato Dela Rosa, among Dutetre’s closest allies, was reportedly denied entry to the US.

“Granting that it’s true (that the) basis (of) cancellation is [my] involvement [in] EJK [extrajudicial killings], well they are very biased, they are misinformed, they are misled by their informants,” said the former police chief, who oversaw Duterte’s drug war.

“Who’d be happy with it? I can no longer visit my siblings in America; I can no longer visit my nephews and nieces. I can no longer watch Senator [Manny] Pacquiao’s fights because I can no longer go there so I really feel bad about it,” he added with visible frustration.

That frustration could spread among the highest echelons of Duterte’s administration in 2020 as other Western governments, including Australia, Canada and the European Union, grapple with whether to follow Washington’s lead.