Duterte says he’s breaking up with the U.S.
Southeast Asia | The Philippine president hasn’t officially cut ties yet
by Angela Lu Fulton
Posted 10/21/16, 12:25 pm
As America fixated on the raucous presidential debate Wednesday, it seemed to lose one of its closest Asian allies on the other side of the globe. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced his country’s economic and military “separation” from the United States and its embrace of once-enemy China.
“There are three of us against the world—China, Philippines, and Russia,” Duterte said in a speech during his four-day state trip to Beijing. “It’s the only way.” The audience of government officials and Chinese businessmen cheered at Duterte’s anti-U.S. rhetoric.
In meetings with Xi Jinping, Duterte agreed to resume bilateral talks on the South China Sea, which ended five years ago after China seized control of the Scarborough Shoal near northern Philippines. In July, a UN panel decided China’s claims to a large part of the South China Sea were baseless, leading to high tensions between the two countries. But all seemed like water under the bridge as Xi welcomed Duterte with full military honors and Duterte declared a “springtime” in China-Philippines relations. The two signed a total of 13 agreements, which Philippine Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez valued at $13.5 billion.
For Duterte, the prize is Chinese investments to build infrastructure in the Philippines; a Chinese market to sell Philippines’ fruits such as mangos, bananas, and pineapple; and a return of fishing rights around the Scarborough Shoal. For China, it’s a chance to pry away an important American ally and show the world the benefits of courting China.
The posture is a great departure from former President Benigno Aquino III, who saw America as an important ally in countering the growing power of neighboring China, especially as the two countries disputed claims in the South China Sea. Yet since Duterte took power in June, the new president’s tone toward his closest international ally has greatly changed.
The foul-mouthed Duterte told President Barack Obama to “go to hell” and raised his middle finger at the European Union for criticizing his war on drugs, which has led to 3,300 extrajudicial killings of alleged drug dealers and users. China, no stranger to human rights abuses, has supported Duterte’s anti-drug campaign. One Chinese businessman agreed to build a rehab center in the Philippines that could treat 10,000 patients.
Duterte has also called for an end to U.S.-Philippines military exercises and the withdrawal of U.S. special forces from the island of Mindanao, where they advise local troops in fighting al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf. Some citizens were also fed up with the five U.S. Army bases in the Philippines, and hundreds of anti-U.S. protesters gathered outside the U.S. embassy in Manila on Wednesday. The protest turned violent as demonstrators attacked a police van before the van repeatedly rammed through the crowd, running over the protesters. Dozens were injured, but no fatalities were reported.
Yet for all Duterte’s talk, U.S. officials say their relationship with the Philippines hasn’t changed. The military bases there remain open, and both Duterte and his defense secretary have walked back the comments about withdrawal of special forces in Mindanao. U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said Duterte’s remarks were “inexplicably at odds with the very close relationship we have with the Filipino people as well as the government there on many different levels, not just from a security perspective.”
And most Filipinos continue to favor the United States: A poll by Social Weather Stations found 76 percent of locals trust the United States, compared to 22 percent who trust China. Kirby insisted the two countries’ 70-year alliance hasn’t been affected: “It isn’t just the United States that is baffled by this rhetoric. We have heard from many of our friends and partners in the region who are likewise confused about where this is going.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.