Friends in the right places? Why Duterte must not turn his back on America

Photo: Presidential Communications Operations Office

President Duterte is turning his tough words into tough choices as he moves away from cooperation with the US and explores closer relationships with Russia and China. 

[yop_poll id=”1″]

By Dung Phan

When the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte first called the US Ambassador a “son of a whore,” most people thought of him as nothing but a tough-talker. However, when he took it a step further and labelled the US President Obama a “son of a whore” right before a summit of world leaders in Laos last week, it was a signal that he wants to move away from dependence on the US.

Commentators are learning that the new president takes a different line at different times. But his anti-American sentiments have been consistent, even before he became a politician. When studying at the Lyceum of the Philippines at the end of the 1960s, Duterte was an activist and member of the Kabataang Makabayan (KM). This is a leftist movement formed in 1964 by Jose Maria Sison, Duterte’s professor on Political Thought. The group is known for its anti-American imperialism stance.

“He [Simon] contaminated us early on, and we became the first KM members,” Duterte said before the May election. He said the movement committed to fighting against “the continuation of the domination of the Philippines by the foreign monopoly capitalism, feudalism and bureaucratic capitalism.”

Following on from his recent strong statements Duterte has this week called for US troops to leave the southern island of Mindanao, where they have been advising the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on countering a Muslim insurgency since early 2000. Ironically, Duterte blames the Americans for stimulating tension with the Muslim community and said the country would never have peace as long as they stayed there. He told reporters “I am not a fan of the Americans,” adding that the Philippines would stop patrolling the South China Sea alongside the US Navy.

An independent foreign policy

This series of offensive remarks against the US, and comments about military cooperation, are part of what Duterte calls “an independent foreign policy.” However is the Philippines ready to dilute US influence? His fellow politicians, and political experts, are not so sure.

It will create huge reverberations and affect his domestic political standing in a profoundly pro-American nation,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, a Manila-based political science professor. “The anti-US bias of President Duterte should not be the basis of the re-crafting of our security policies,” adds Heydarian, explaining that the country sees many benefits from US cooperation; including military training, logistical support and information exchanges.

Senator Antonio Trillanes IV highlighted that “The US special operations forces have been instrumental in the development and increased [the] effectiveness of our AFP operating units in Mindanao since 2001.” Meanwhile, former Philippine Ambassador to the U.S. Jose Cuisia criticised Duterte’s decision to end joint patrols with the US saying “When you look at what the U.S. provided us over the past six years, it’s been quite substantial, and you have to appreciate that.”

On top of $79 million in military aid for 2016, Manila is expected to receive a further $42 million from the White House to improve its maritime capacity. The US has also supplied Manila with second-hand military equipment, accounting for about 75% of the Philippines’ arms imports, says the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The bottom line is that the Philippines will suffer a big loss if there is any decrease in US support, trade or investment.

Independent, but closer to China

Duterte has reiterated that he wants to improve ties with China since he took office. And the kind of public comments he has been making are meant as his first steps on this journey. During his first-ever trip to Indonesia after the ASEAN summit, he thanked China “for being so generous to us” in supporting his war on drugs. “Only China will help us. America just gave principles of law and nothing else,” he said.

The second step in Duterte’s approach is to partially shift the country’s procurement of arms to Russia and China. He has already announced that the two countries had agreed to give the Philippines a 25-year soft loan to buy military equipment. It is also worth noting that China and Russia began their first joint military exercise in the disputed waters of the South China Sea this week, despite the fact that both countries agree not to comply with the ruling of the Hague Tribunal. And in light of Duterte’s intention to move closer to the two nations, many analysts questions what he will exchange in return.

Of course, the nationalistic president Duterte can reason that the lives of Filipinos’ matter most, and what he has been doing so far is to focus on his domestic infrastructure and nation-building agenda. However, even the Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who shares the same minimal international experience and disinterest in foreign policy, has started to change his mind and aim for more regional goals.

The worst scenario is that a significant loss in support for economic stability and development from the US will increase poverty and unemployment, a major driver of national drug crime. And has Duterte already forgotten that China is harbouring major drug lords smuggling narcotics into his country? He should choose his friends very, very carefully.