Can the US-Philippine Alliance Endure Duterte?

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This article was originally published by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) on 14 September 2016.

Philippine President Roberto Duterte is continuing his anti-American campaign with two latest bombshell statements, first calling for the fewer than 200 American Special Operations Forces advising and training Philippine troops to exit the southern Philippines. “I don’t want a rift,” he told the press this week, “but they have to go.” The terrorist group Abu Sayyaf, he explained, would kill them on sight, a curious claim since U.S. forces have been helping to counter threats in the southern Philippines for years. Perhaps Duterte’s real motives are designed to permit him to conduct military and law-enforcement operations without worrying about international scrutiny, while at the same time letting China know he is willing to distance himself from his ally if that is the price of major capital investment.

Whatever the real drivers behind Duterte, the Philippine president managed within a mere 24-hours to shock the world by ordering his defense secretary to work on security pronouncements with China and Russia to combat drug traffickers and insurgents and cease joint patrols in the South China Sea alongside the U.S. Navy. In case it wasn’t abundantly clear at this point, Duterte spelled out his position: “I do not like Americans. It’s simply a matter of principle for me.” For a leader actively supporting extra-judicial killings, “principle” may be a relative concept. But the biggest problem is the potential long-term damage that could be caused by Duterte airing his emotions in public.

Clearly, Duterte’s talk-jock-style approach to alliance management is undermining Manila’s strategic alliance with the United States. Already suffering international opprobrium over his draconian war on drugs, Duterte crashed onto the summit stage earlier this month by dropping a Tagalog profanity to describe President Barack Obama. The caustic comment resulted in a postponed and then shortened encounter between the two leaders at a time when both stood to gain far more by standing in unity.

Such is the fallout from the fledgling presidential reign of the flamboyant former mayor of Davao City, a man who is holding fast to his populist campaign promise to run an independent foreign policy. Duterte may indeed only be accountable to the Filipino people, but Philippine foreign and security policy benefits from longstanding friends. Duterte’s latest words seemingly answer any remaining questions about his intent with respect to that friendship.

As Duterte is wont to remind everyone, the Philippines was colonized by the United States at great human cost. In 1909, the United States Armed Forces fought against the Moro people known as the Tausugs in the Battle in the Clouds. The battle resulted in the massacre of some 850 people, two-thirds of whom were women and children. However, a mere four decades later, the U.S. Army’s 163rd Combat Regiment fought alongside the Tausug people against Japanese occupation during World War II. Tens of thousands of American and Filipino prisoners of war prevailed together through the 65-mile Bataan Death March.

Yet despite this traumatic history, or perhaps because of it, the U.S.-Philippine relationship had begun to flourish in recent years. In the past decade, Washington and Manila forged a new vision of partnership and started to implement the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that gives U.S. forces access to selected Philippine bases. But in addition to U.S. access, the Philippines was set to gain a shared real-time operating picture of the South China Sea and invaluable training and assistance in defending Philippine sovereignty, which includes an earmarked $41 million, the lion’s share of Department of Defense Maritime Security Initiative funding to support building the security capacity of South China Sea littoral states.

Further, the Philippines is the largest U.S. recipient of assistance in Asia. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has facilitated more than $5 billion in infrastructure investments since 2013, and among the many educational, health, and economic development projects USAID has implemented on the ground are small and medium enterprise loans and banking for Mindanao.

The Philippines has reciprocated this relationship. In 2013 and 2015, Pew’s America’s Global Image survey revealed that the Philippine public had an overwhelmingly favorable view of the United States (85 percent and 92 percent, respectively). Among the numerous security activities that the two nations undertake together is the aptly named annual exercise Balikatan, meaning “shoulder-to-shoulder” in Tagalog. Given recent Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, the United States has been a staunch supporter of Philippine sovereignty, voicing strong support for the arbitral tribunal ruling that favored the Philippines against China to uphold international rule of law.

Yet Duterte seems minutes away from throwing this partnership down the drain. His open antagonism brings Duterte closer to an edge beyond which it will be difficult to operationalize the alliance during his tenure in office.

Philippine officials are now scrambling to mollify their headstrong leader’s words. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has voiced clear support of the U.S. mutual defense treaty and the acting mayor of Zamboanga, the Mindanao city where U.S. troops are stationed, has referenced the humanitarian assistance provided by U.S. forces (although he also conceded that he intends to respect the will of his president). It seems everyone outside of the president’s office seem to want to carry on the partnership as is.

Miraculously, the United States continues to clearly signal its willingness to continue its relationship with the Philippines despite the ruckus – a testament to the sturdy relationship the two countries (perhaps more importantly, the two peoples) have built over decades of cooperation. President Obama tactfully dismissed Duterte’s offensive remarks and chalked them up to his “colorful character.” President Obama has also proven willing to express regret about the egregious loss of life in wartime (viz., Hiroshima) and transforming wartime mistakes into new opportunities for aid and cooperation (viz., Laos). Yet this patience will not last forever.

Alliances are based on give and take between two or more nations. The United States and the Philippines share mutual interests in building prosperity and cementing the international rule of law. It isn’t too late for President Duterte to tone back his rhetoric and weigh the will of his people. However, time is running out; Duterte must start walking back from the edge before he is unable find his way back.

About the Authors

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is a Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Anthony Woon Cho is an intern at the CNAS.

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