Asia's Game of Thrones
Duterte Pivoting Away?

First Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called President Obama a “son of a whore” during a speech. Next, at ASEAN, the Philippines abstained from calling on China to abide by a ruling issued against it by an international arbitration court in the Hague over a territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

Then earlier this week, Duterte went even further:

“China is now in power, and they have military superiority in the region,” Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’s new president, said this week as he announced the end of joint naval patrols with the US in the disputed South China Sea, and expelled US forces from southern Mindanao. […]

“We are not cutting umbilical cords, but I also would not want to place my country in jeopardy,” said Mr Duterte, who has vowed to chart an independent foreign policy.

The Philippine leader has also told US forces to leave the country’s southern Mindanao island—claiming their presence is contributing to an Islamic insurgency—and has announced plans to seek military equipment from China and Russia.

No more joint patrols, no more U.S. special forces bases, and plans to buy military equipment from Russia and China—these could be more than mere rhetorical feints. The White House was downplaying the remarks, even as the Chinese were cautiously optimistic, calling this a “turning point” in relations. Still, as Reuters notes, even the Chinese have their doubts:

China’s influential Global Times tabloid noted last week that despite the acrimony between Obama and Duterte, China should “not hold too many illusions” about U.S.-Philippine relations.

Referring to Duterte, the newspaper said that long term, it “will not necessarily be easy to deal with the Philippines under his rule”.

As we noted the other day, it’s still possible that even Duterte doesn’t know what Duterte wants. But whatever the ultimate outcome, the reality is that he seems keen to deal the U.S.-Philippine relationship several quick body blows.

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