In back-to-back statements this month, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte suggested U.S. military personnel quit helping his country. He said foreign powers should quit helping with patrols in the South China Sea, where the Philippines has been resisting China since 2012 over contested maritime claims. It’s the United States that has helped the most, part of a military cooperation agreement reached in 2014. A day later, the 71-year-old president generally known for rash remarks said U.S. forces should quit their 14 years of low-key military advisory work in Mindanao, where Duterte’s government of almost three months has stepped up its fight against the violent Abu Sayyaf terrorist group.
And the week he was due to meet U.S. President Barack Obama at a regional summit in early September, he reportedly called the fellow head of state a dirty name and the meeting was cancelled.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on September 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
U.S. officials have lain low through a lot of Duterte’s harsh words. But there’s no indication they will make any changes. First, Washington gets something geopolitically from helping the Philippines, its former Southeast Asian colony. Second, Duterte probably doesn’t mean what he says beyond venting old frustrations toward the United States.
The U.S. Embassy in Manila this month called its alliance with the Philippines among the most “enduring and important” in the Asia Pacific. The technical, advisory role it has played since 2002 in Mindanao helps it contain a Muslim terrorist group, part of a bigger global American cause. Troop rotation and joint exercises with the Philippines in the South China Sea help Manila safeguard against vessels from China, which claims the same waters. The embassy calls U.S.-Philippine alliance ”a cornerstone of stability for over 70 years” but would not comment on Duterte’s remarks last week.
And maybe they shouldn’t. Duterte’s comments probably speak more to his outspoken character rather than a true intent to push the United States out, though he is courting China at the same time he shoots barbs at Washington. As long as “we stay with America, we will never have peace…We might as well give up,” the president was quoted saying on the Mindanao struggle.
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