Richard Javad Heydarian is an assistant professor in political science at De La Salle University in Manila, and, most recently, the author of Asia’s New Battlefield: The U.S., China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific.
Three months into office, the Philippines’ firebrand president, Rodrigo Duterte, made his global diplomatic debut, when he attended the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia Group summits earlier this month. No less than the leaders of China, Japan, Russia, India, and the United States as well as the Secretary General of the United Nations were in attendance. The Duterte administration scheduled nine bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the sidelines of the regional gathering, including with U.S. President Barack Obama.
Duterte was also slated to formally accept the Philippines’ (rotational) chairmanship of the Southeast Asian regional grouping. (The Philippines technically become ASEAN chair next year.) The ASEAN summit in Vientiane, Laos, thus was a perfect opportunity for him to showcase a more statesmanlike and composed demeanor, in contrast to the blunt style he has used as president this summer. After all, shortly after securing an election victory earlier this year, the controversial leader promised not to be rude anymore, reassuring citizens of the Philippines that, “when I take my oath of office . . . there will be a metamorphosis.”
Duterte’s promise was put to test just hours before he landed in Laos for the ASEAN summit. In another spontaneous, long-winded press conference in the Philippines, Duterte apparently referring to President Obama with a curse word, when he was asked about Washington’s criticism of Duterte’s antidrug campaign.
Soon after, the White House announced that the bilateral meeting with Duterte was called off, provoking diplomatic alarm in Manila. In response, the Duterte administration released an official statement of “regret” for Duterte’s words, prompting Washington to reiterate that U.S.-Philippine relations remain “rock solid” and that Obama never took the insults personally. But just when everyone thought the issue was smoothed over, Duterte went on the offensive again, making an impromptu speech in Vientiane criticizing what he called the United States’ colonial-era crimes against the Philippine population.
Duterte also skipped the U.S.-ASEAN summit portion of the Vientiane event. This was a snub to the United States. To be sure, Duterte remains an extremely popular leader at home, but the reception in the Philippines for Duterte’s first efforts at diplomacy were, at best, mixed. According to one survey, the Philippines is the most pro-United States nation on earth. So many Philippine citizens were unsurprisingly shocked to see such an open dispute between their government and Washington.
Instead of holding back, Duterte has upped the ante in recent days since the Vientiane meeting, even suggesting that he may consider scrapping existing military agreements with the United States. In one of his characteristically spirited speeches, he asked U.S. Special Forces, who have for more than a decade been training Philippine soldiers in fighting extremist groups, to leave the southern Philippines. He also announced the termination of joint patrols with U.S. forces in the South China Sea, while indicating that his country would begin sourcing its military hardware from Russia and China. Duterte tried to justify his controversial statements by invoking the Philippines’ constitutional commitment to an “independent” foreign policy.
Critics, meanwhile, were quick to portray Duterte as essentially decoupling the Philippines from its traditional alliances, including with the United States, in favor of other regional powers, like China. Yet the United States continues to enjoy deep and institutionalized ties with the Philippines’ security establishment and other influential Philippine policymakers.
Thus, it would be very difficult for any Philippine president to upend security cooperation with the United States without suffering a domestic backlash. Reports also suggest that there has been no formal request by the Manila to actually terminate any U.S. military presence in the southern Philippines. It is more likely that Duterte is simply signaling what he hopes becomes a new normal in bilateral relations with the United States during his time as president. Duterte wants to make it clear that when it comes to human rights issues and his war on drugs, he is in no mood to be lectured. With Duterte also likely to visit Beijing in the coming month, in hopes of negotiating a modus vivendi in the South China Sea, his recent anti-American tirades also could reflect a calibrated maneuver to communicate to China Manila’s independence from Washington.