The Philippines and the United States are conducting joint war games Tuesday, a key achievement of a hard-fought upgrade in the Washingt0n–Manila bilateral relationship. But with President Rodrigo Duterte apparently interested in changing tack, is this the last time such games will be held? The AP reports:
“Instead of helping us, the first to criticize is this State Department, so you can go to hell, Mr. Obama, you can go to hell,” Duterte said. Then addressing the EU, he said: “Better choose purgatory, hell is filled up.”
In a later speech at a synagogue in Makati city in the Manila metropolis, Duterte warned he may decide to “break up with America” in his most serious threat so far to push relations back with Washington.
“Eventually I might, in my time, I will break up with America,” he said without elaborating. “I would rather go to Russia and to China.”
The bombastic president’s comments are just the latest in a string of invective, according to the AFP:
“Better think twice now because I will be asking you to leave the Philippines altogether,” Duterte said on Sunday as he launched a tirade against the Americans full of typical invective.
“The Americans, I don’t like them… they are reprimanding me in public. So I say: ‘Screw you, fuck you’,” he said, while signalling again that he wanted to forge closer alliances with China and Russia.
Last week Duterte, 71, also claimed the CIA was plotting to assassinate him.
Pentagon officials said on Monday that they are unperturbed. In another story from the AFP:
Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis said the military was aware of Duterte’s comments.
But “it hasn’t really so much translated into tangible actions that we’ve seen with regards to our actions under the alliance,” he said.
“In as much as our alliance with the Philippines is concerned, it’s very much solid and stable and secure and on track,” he added, pointing to continued cooperation in military exercises and assistance with counterterrorism operations in the southern Philippines.
Over the weekend, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said that, “personally” (i.e. not in his official capacity), he found Duterte’s self-comparison to Hitler “deeply troubling.” But he didn’t sound overly stressed about the geopolitical situation.
Manila is a key piece of U.S. Asia Pacific strategy, and if it makes its own pivot to Russia and China, that would complicate America’s plans a great deal. But reorienting the Philippines can’t happen overnight, and it’s possible that the U.S. believes Duterte isn’t willing or able to pull off an overhaul of his country’s foreign policy. Maybe he’s just riling up crowds with populist (anti-American) rhetoric, and that will be the end of it.
In time, things should become clearer as Washington either successfully pursues the same strategy in the Philippines it has promised—or changes course.