U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday he remained confident about the future of the U.S.-Philippines relationship despite “a difference here or there” and that he hoped to visit Manila again before leaving office.New Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has thrown Manila’s long-standing alliance with Washington into question since taking office in June with a series of insults and threats to cut ties with the former colonial power.Speaking at a swearing-in ceremony for the new U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, Sung Kim, Kerry called the alliance between the two peoples “indelible.” […]“I am confident about the future of our bilateral relations, notwithstanding a difference here or there about one thing or another,” he said.
The Obama administration has apparently adopted a “keep calm and carry on” approach to the Philippines, calculating that Duterte’s bluster is a bluff and that the relationship will endure. There are certainly data points to support that view. The U.S. remains the Philippines’ top foreign investor, contributing $731 million in 2015, and Duterte has clarified that he has no interest in severing economic ties. Military-to-military ties proceed apace, despite Duterte’s threats to scrap bilateral defense cooperation. And Philippine public opinion is overwhelmingly pro-American: a 2015 Pew poll found that 92% of Filipinos have a favorable attitude toward the U.S., while only 54% have a favorable view of China.Still, Kerry’s remarks run the risk of appearing to be out of touch. The administration clearly does not want to provoke Duterte or overreact to his outbursts, but there is a risk in under-reacting as well. The United States is going through something of a credibility crisis in Asia at the moment, as Malaysia and the Philippines lean toward China and the TPP faces an uncertain future.Across two terms, the big talk about the “pivot to Asia” was not always followed through on. And Obama’s pivot has in no small part been hurt by the sequester’s budget cuts. The next administration must take the lead in rebuilding the navy, reprioritizing Asia and putting some military muscle behind the pivot’s promises.