Another day, another set of mixed messages from Manila. After last week’s announcement that the U.S.-Philippine defense pact signed in 2014 was still on track, President Rodrigo Duterte cast doubt on it once again, claiming that the U.S. was storing up permanent weapons supplies in violation of the agreement. Now, Philippine military brass are walking back that claim. Reuters reports:
The United States is not creating weapons stores or armories in the Philippines, military officials said on Monday, contradicting President Rodrigo Duterte who has complained of a U.S. breach of a defense pact that could stoke regional tension.
Duterte on Sunday accused the United States of stirring up trouble by building permanent arms depots in his country, including delivering tanks, and threatened to respond by scrapping a security treaty between them. […]
Military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla said the president’s concern had been looked into and the U.S. military’s activities were to help the Philippines to better handle natural disasters.
“There was no confirmed incident of this nature,” he told reporters, referring to the accusations that arms were bring brought in.
This sort of back-and-forth has become commonplace under Duterte, whose embrace of China and scorn toward the United States has been at odds with the Philippine military’s longstanding relationship with the Pentagon. So far, that discord has continued into the early days of the Trump administration.
Despite the mixed messages here, though, Duterte and his defense team are not entirely on different pages. In recent days, Trump’s combative approach toward China has unsettled them both. Duterte’s accusations about American weapons come in a context of heightened anxiety that the U.S. could drag the Philippines into a conflict in the South China Sea. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, for instance, has warned against being used as a proxy in a conflict with China, and has said that he is waiting for his counterpart, General James Mattis, to clarify the new administration’s policy after early tough talk about denying China access to its artificial islands.
In other words, the Philippine military brass may be defending U.S. forces against Duterte’s unfounded accusations, but they are not unconcerned about Trump’s military posture toward China. So far, Trump and Mattis have had little to say publicly about policy toward the Philippines, which may be contributing to the confusion. Staking out a tough line on China without alienating Manila will be a challenging balancing act for the new administration.