How long can Duterte turn his back on the US for?

Photo: CNN

Is Duterte criticising and threatening the Philippine-US alliance in order to blackmail the US into giving the Philippines more assistance? Will Duterte’s forsaking of foreign relations for domestic approval pay off in the long term? Is Japan an alternative ally in the region, in light of rising tensions in the South China Sea?


President Rodrigo Duterte’s harsh remarks have landed himself and Filipino diplomats in hot water. Not only has Duterte condemned the US Ambassador to the Philippines, but he’s also made personal attacks against President Obama.

Moreover, Duterte has called out many international institutions, such as the UN, calling it “stupid”, and even gone as far as giving the middle finger to the EU, when they criticised his war on drugs. Accordingly, Duterte has likened himself to Hitler, by stating that he that he would slaughter 3 million drug users and dealers, just as Hitler slaughtered 3 million Jews.

Is Duterte blackmailing the US?

Moreover, Duterte has repeatedly condemned the Philippines-US security cooperation, stating that the Philippines would pursue an “independent foreign policy”, emphasising that fact that he is “not a fan of the Americans”.

In light of condemning the US, Duterte has changed his mind about the Philippines-US security cooperation numerous times.

On Sept 12th, Duterte demanded that the US Special Forces pull back from Mindanao region in the Southern Philippines. However he changed his mind a week later, claiming that the Philippines needed the US, in order to ensure its security in the South China Sea, subsequently this month once again, Duterte overturned his previous order to keep US troops in the South Philippines.

Duterte’s eccentric and belligerent behaviour has many people wondering what exactly the Filipino strongman wants the world to know. Some analysts attribute his behaviour to his lack of foreign affairs experience; however others believe the exact opposite.

There is speculation that Duterte is making threats against cancelling the Philippines-US security deal, in hopes of scaring the US into investing more into the Philippines, in order to keep their existing alliance intact.

The Philippines is currently the largest beneficiary of US assistance in East Asia, and if Duterte is trying to blackmail the US into increasing its assistance through threatening to overturn US-Philippine bilateral relations, he’s making a grave mistake.

Domestic affairs causing a souring of foreign relations

Unlike his predecessors, Duterte doesn’t come from a wealthy or politically connected family, which resulted in his lack of support from the Philippines traditional power base. Accordingly, after he won the election, rumours spread of a military coup to depose Duterte, and in order to counter such a threat Duterte raised the salaries of those in the military and the police.

Maintaining a comparatively high approval rating is essential for Duterte, and many Filipinos like “Dirty Duterte” because of his fierce nationalistic rhetoric and decisiveness, which is a stark contrast to the negligent and inefficient Benigno Aquino III government.

Duterte’s three main campaign promises were the elimination of poverty, increasing the budget on infrastructure, and improving social security. Out of the three main promises Duterte made during his campaign, he has found that improving social security would be the easiest promise to undertake, thus he’s focused diligently on accomplishing it.

The importance of improving social security is not necessarily achieving an intended goal, but rather proving the effectiveness and garnering people’s confidence of the new government.

Subsequently, after being elected to power Duterte began to undertake his promise of social security, by beginning his war against drug-related crime, which has been widely supported by the Filipino people.

The Philippines drug problem runs deep, as many government officials and police commissioners are suspected of collusion with wealthy drug dealers. Thus, Duterte has had to take fierce non-judicial steps, in order to free the Philippines from its addiction to shabu and other drugs.

However, Duterte’s war on drugs is seen as the driving factor causing strained relations, with many of its allies, such as the US and EU.

Is Japan a good alternative in the South China Sea?

Duterte’s criticism of America’s intervention in the Philippines domestic affairs has shown that the Filipino strongman isn’t afraid of putting his country’s domestic policy, over its foreign relations. Subsequently, the more Duterte drags on his slaughter of 3 million drug users and dealers, the more Philippines foreign relations with its allies will continue to suffer.

Consequently, in lieu of diminishing Philippine-US relations, the Philippines could strive for closer ties with Japan. The latter country is one of the only major powers that have continued to have normalised relations with the Philippines, despite Duterte’s war on drugs.

Therefore, Duterte may find Japan as a strong ally in the South China Sea, as to counter growing Chinese influence in the region. Moreover, Japan is a close US ally, and pushing for better Philippine-Japanese relations may help to stabilise the US-Philippines alliance.