The Cable

First Cracks Appear in the U.S. Alliance With the Philippines

It’s more than just words now. President Duterte’s government takes first real step to scale back defense cooperation with Washington.


The Philippines’ president has heaped abuse on the United States for weeks, but now Rodrigo Duterte is backing up his words with action. His defense minister said Friday the Philippines has suspended joint naval patrols with the United States in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

Manila’s announcement deals a blow to the Obama administration’s diplomatic and military strategy in the South China Sea, and raises questions about the future course of an alliance that had been seen as a reliable bedrock.

The joint naval patrols, launched this year, were designed to send an important symbolic message to counter China’s aggressive territorial claims and island-building in the strategic waterway. American and Philippine naval ships have conducted three patrols since March, the most recent in July, Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Gary Ross said.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he had conveyed the decision to the head of U.S. Pacific Command during a visit to Hawaii last week.

The joint patrols “have been suspended for the time being. They (Washington) know it already,” Lorenzana told reporters.

The defense minister also said his government wanted to expel “in the near future” the roughly 100 U.S. special operations forces stationed in the southern Philippines. The American troops help local forces track Islamist militants from the Abu Sayyaf group, and the Pentagon has held up the mission as a low-cost, light footprint success. But Lorenzana indicated the U.S. forces would be asked to leave as soon as Philippine army troops could be trained to use surveillance drones.

Lorenzana unveiled the decision as U.S. and Philippine forces hold a major amphibious military exercise.

Until Duterte came to power on June 30, the Philippines had appealed to the United States to take on a larger military presence in the region and to provide more hardware and radar to prevent China from imposing its will in the South China Sea.

The Philippines, along with several other states in Southeast Asia, are locked in increasingly bitter territorial disputes with Beijing, which claims virtually the entire South China Sea. Tensions between Manila and Beijing are running particularly high over Scarborough Shoal, a resource-rich coral atoll that lies less than 150 miles off the Philippine coast.
But Duterte has taken a different tack. In less than two months, he has called U.S. President Barack Obama a “son of whore,” threatened to kick out about 600 U.S. troops based in the country, cancel all military exercises with the United States, and warned that his government could abandon its decades-old alliance with the Americans.

This week, he said Obama could “go to hell.”

The Philippine president’s open hostility to Washington followed criticism from the United States and other Western governments over his violent war on drugs, which has claimed the lives of  more than 3,300 people and prompted allegations of widespread vigilante killings.

Duterte has vowed to continue the anti-drug crime campaign, even though the violence and his statements have spooked financial markets, sending the country’s peso to a seven-year low. He even likened himself to Hitler last month, saying that the Nazi dictator had killed millions of Jews and that he would like to kill millions of drug dealers: “I’d be happy to slaughter them.”

While Duterte has made no apologies for his coarse remarks, officials in Manila and Washington have sought to play down his inflammatory comments.  Some experts predict that despite the strain caused by Duterte’s invective, the U.S.-Philippine relationship will endure without any dramatic change.

But the move to call off joint naval patrols suggested Duterte may follow through on other threats to cancel all military exercises with the Americans and to possibly revoke a new defense cooperation agreement that grants the United States wide access to air and naval bases across the country.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay on Thursday said Duterte wanted to free the country from the “shackles of dependency” on the United States and that he was “compelled to realign” Philippine foreign policy.

Photo credit: TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty 

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