Before heading off on a state visit to Japan, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte dropped another rhetorical bombshell, threatening to scrap a crucial security pact. Reuters:
Commenting on a visit to Manila on Monday by Daniel Russel, an Assistant Secretary of State, Duterte said Washington should forget about an Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the Philippines if he were to stay in charge longer.
“You have the EDCA, well forget it. If I stay here long enough,” he said. “I do not want to see any military man of any other nation except the Filipino. That’s the only thing I want.”
He did not elaborate on what staying longer meant. In the Philippines, a president is allowed only one six-year term in office.
A Philippine decision to ax the EDCA would deal another major blow to the Obama administration’s Asia rebalance. The bilateral defense agreement, signed in 2014, was strategically designed to make the Philippines a major staging area for projecting U.S. naval and air power in the Pacific. Last November, Obama travelled to the Philippines to make the case for the EDCA as the Philippine Supreme Court questioned its constitutionality. The agreement cleared that hurdle in January, but with Duterte’s latest diatribe its future is in doubt.
When Duterte threatened to tear up the pact earlier this month, the Pentagon downplayed his comments. But his latest threat, together with his cryptic words about staying in power long enough, have renewed uncertainty about U.S.-Philippine security cooperation. The timing of his comments is particularly awkward coming on the heels of a U.S. diplomatic visit meant to smooth the waters, and ahead of Duterte’s trip to Japan, a major U.S. ally.
The outcomes of the Japanese visit could be a sign of things to come. Japan could perhaps serve as an effective intermediary and advocate for American interests in the region. Given Duterte’s hostile rhetoric and personal enmity toward the United States, Tokyo could be an easier partner for him to deal with than Washington. Ahead of the trip, Japanese officials stated that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would explain the importance of the American role in the Pacific to Duterte.
But how far will Japan go in pushing back against Duterte’s provocations, and how much leverage does Tokyo really have? Japan may be the Philippines’ top investor and export market, but Duterte’s courting of China before Japan shows a shift in priorities. And Tokyo has its own reasons for not wanting to alienate Manila, so the Japanese may not push the U.S. line too hard. Time will tell.