The United States’ relationship with the Philippines has been on somewhat rocky footing since June, when Rodrigo Duterte became president.
On Monday, Duterte made the latest in a series of comments that have put the countries at odds on the world stage: He called for U.S. special forces to leave the southern Philippines, where they have advised and assisted the Armed Forces of the Philippines in missions against Islamist insurgents since 2002. At one point, more than 1,000 U.S. troops were working in and around Mindanao, the largest major island in the archipelago’s south. In recent years, the mission has wound down, but some 200 U.S. advisors remain on the ground.
“These U.S. special forces, they have to go in Mindanao,” Duterte told a gathering of government officials, as reported by Agence France-Presse. “The [Muslim] people will become more agitated. If they see an American, they will really kill him.” In August, Duterte resumed a stalled peace process with the country’s largest Islamist rebel group.
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters later Monday that Washington had not yet received any official request from Manilla about withdrawing U.S. special operations forces. But that doesn’t mean that Duterte’s words were a passing threat.
“He doesn’t seem to be the kind of political leader who backs down after saying something,” Amy Searight, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Foreign Policy. “If he said something that clearly and unambiguously, he is the type to follow through.”
The special forces comment was the latest in a series of inflammatory remarks by Duterte about the United States. Earlier this month, he was set to meet with President Barack Obama during a visit to Laos for a summit with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But Obama scrubbed the planned encounter after Duterte called the U.S. president a “son of a whore” at the prospect that he might raise recent concerns about the Philippines’ human rights record. More than 2,000 people have died in a crackdown on drugs and crime since Duterte took office, after running a campaign that as good as promised extrajudicial killings.
Duterte has also referred to U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg as a gay “son of a whore.” And on Saturday, Duterte said he was “not a fan of the Americans” and that “Filipinos should be first before everybody else.”
Ever since the Philippines gained independence from the United States in 1946, the island nation has been a key partner to the United States. The two countries cooperate closely and are longstanding mutual defense treaty allies. The United States devoted significant resources to help the Philippines recover from Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. But Manila has had to walk a fine line between the strategic partnership and popular sentiment against U.S. influence in the archipelago, which has been a strong current in the politics of the Philippines since the colonial era.
Searight remains optimistic that most elements of the countries’ relationship can remain on course, pointing to U.S. disaster recovery assistance and an enhanced defense cooperation negotiated in 2014 to bolster the Philippines in maritime disputes with China.
“So far, [Duterte] has only said he wants special forces out because of the peace process — he has not touched all the other work that we’re doing,” she said. “When you have an ally who says he doesn’t like Americans, that is clearly concerning, but there is no reason to think that we are going to go off track on the broad range of our alliance cooperation.”
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