Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte seemed to strike a more conciliatory tone toward the United States on Wednesday, the Philippine Star reports:
“I said there will be some time in the future that I will ask the US special forces to get out, almost 117 of them, better that you get out so that I can talk peace… and so I can show that you are not there,” he said in a speech before the 10th Infantry Division of the Philippine Army in Mawab, Compostela Valley.
“I never said get out of the Philippines. For after all, we need them in (South) China Sea,” Duterte added.
The comments walked back Duterte’s outburst last week where he called for all U.S. troops to leave the Philippines. They also stand in contrast to the vulgar language he used with the EU a couple days ago.
Meanwhile, joint combat drills between the Philippines and the U.S. are set to begin as planned, the AP reports:
Philippine military officials on Thursday announced the first large-scale combat exercises between U.S. and Filipino forces under President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been critical of American security policies.
Military officials said the annual maneuvers by about 1,400 U.S. military personnel and 500 Philippine marines will involve amphibious landing and live-fire exercises at a northern gunnery range from Oct 4 to 12.
So far, at least, Duterte’s language might be sending unhelpful signals, but it has not been followed up by comparable actions.
Duterte is a volatile populist who clearly likes to play to his countrymen’s resentments from time to time. Furthermore, it’s never exactly been clear what Duterte wants for his country. He certainly isn’t happy about China’s challenge in the South China Sea, but he also doesn’t like how much his predecessor relied on Washington. Balancing these interests requires a delicate touch that, so far, the former tough-guy big city mayor doesn’t appear to have mastered.
Planners in Washington are surely hoping he gets better at it. If Manila backs out of the shaky but firming alliance opposed to China’s aggression in Asia, that would be a big problem for the U.S., Japan, and their Southeast Asian partners.