While until now the verbal outbursts of the outspoken, "vulgar" Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, who last week called president Obama a "son of a whore" (before he were mostly bark, and no bite, something changed yesterday.
In an abrupt departure from his nation’s longstanding military reliance on the U.S., Duterte said the Philippines would pursue "independent" foreign and military policies separate from US interests in the region, and ordered his defense secretary to seek weapons from suppliers in China and Russia to fight drug traffickers and insurgents. In another dramatic shift, the WSJ notes that the president also said Tuesday that the Philippines would stop patrolling the South China Sea alongside the U.S. Navy, to avoid upsetting Beijing. Instead, he said the nation’s military would focus on combating drugs and terrorism, handing a major diplomatic victory of Beijing and a symbolic loss to the US and its support of non-Chinese terrotorial claims to the South China Sea.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, wearing a pilot's jacket, gestures
on Tuesday with Defense Chief Delfin Lorenzana
The Philippines has had close ties with the U.S. for decades, most recently bolstering military cooperation through a 2014 pact. Both Washington and Manila have leveraged their alliance to counter China, whose increasingly assertive actions in support of its maritime claims have stoked unease in the region. But since coming to power on June 30, Mr. Duterte has indicated he wants to distance the Philippines from the U.S., a stance that threatens to alter the precarious strategic balance of power in the Asia-Pac region, especially when it comes to US interests. As we previously reported, in his initial anti-US shift, Duterte said on Monday that he wanted the U.S. military to leave Mindanao, the site of a strategic base set to host American forces.
Mr. Duterte’s statements this week were the latest in a string of developments that have pleased, surprised and horrified his audiences since he took office. His so-called war on drugs and crime has already claimed 2,956 lives, according to police, and his sometimes crude statements have insulted targets as varied as the pope, the United Nations head and U.S. President Barack Obama.
However, it has been his abrupt snubbing of Obama that has provoked the most surprise, indignation, outrage and admiration. Duterte continued his open criticism of American security policies, when in a televised speech on Tuesday before military officers in Manila, he said a ‘paradigm shift’ is coming in the country’s dealing with allies. "We are not cutting our alliances – military (alliances) as well. But certainly, we will follow an independent posture and independent foreign policy,” Duterte said.
The first step for the Philippines would be to opt out of US-led patrols of the South China Sea because the country does “not want trouble,” the president said announcing that his navy “will not join any expedition of patrolling the seas... because I do not want my country to be involved in a hostile act.”
In the second step, Duterte hinted that he was ending Phillipino reliance on US weaponry by at least partially shifting the procurement of arms to Russia and China. Duterte said that the two countries had agreed to give the Philippines a 25-year soft loan to buy military equipment.
About 75% of the Philippines’ arms imports since the 1950s came from the US, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Russia and China have since that time have been out of the loop. In announcing a definite shift in defense policy, the president said that he wanted to buy arms “where they are cheap and where there are no strings attached and it is transparent.”
“Let’s contend ourselves with the propeller-driven planes but which we can use extensively in counter-insurgency,” Duterte added. “I don’t need jets, F-16 – that’s of no use to us… we don’t intend to fight any country.”
Preempting what would be an angry response from the White House, Duterte's spokesman said that the Philippines would continue to honor agreements with the US such as the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). “We’re not turning back on anybody. We are just charting an independent course,” the spokesman said. We doubt that will placate Obama, or his replacement.
The country’s Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay also clarified Duterte’s message to US troops, saying: “There is no shift in so far as our policy is concerned with respect to our close friendship with the Americans.”
Naturally, the US responded in the most neutral possible way: State Department spokesman John Kirby said that Washington was aware of Duterte’s comments, but was “not aware of any official communication by the Philippine government to that that effect and to seek that result.” He will be soon.
Pentagon spokesman Commander Gary Ross meanwhile said that US-Philippine relationship “has been a cornerstone of stability for over 70 years.” “We will continue to consult closely with our Filipino partners to appropriately tailor our assistance to whatever approach the new Administration adopts,” Ross said.
Alas, Ross may also have to consult with the Philippines' new strategic partners too: Russia and China; he will hardly enjoy it.