Richard Javad Heydarian is an assistant professor in political science at De La Salle University in Manila, and, most recently, the author of Asia’s New Battlefield: The U.S., China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific.
The Philippines’ controversial president, Rodrigo Duterte, has once again grabbed global headlines with his inflammatory statements. This time, he reportedly invoked Hitler to underscore his commitment to continuing a ‘shock and awe’ campaign against illegal drugs, which has provoked global outcry. In response to a chorus of international condemnation, senior Philippine officials were quick to dismiss Duterte’s latest off-the-cuff remarks as a joke that should not be taken literally. Recognizing his mistake, the president himself apologized “profoundly and deeply” and clarified that there “was never an intention to derogate” the Holocaust.
With suspected drug users and sellers surrendering to the government, there is growing pressure on the Duterte administration to adopt a more public health-centered approach on the issue. And the cash-strapped Philippine government is in need of significant foreign assistance to deal with the public health crisis. Some foreign actors have responded, despite Duterte’s criticism of them. Though at the receiving end of Duterte’s tirades—he has called the European Union “hypocrites” and sworn at them—the European Union has stepped up its assistance for new drug rehabilitation centers in the Philippines. The United Nations could also pursue common ground with Manila in addressing the country’s real drugs problems by focusing on augmenting the Philippines’ limited rehabilitation capacity for drug users.
Meanwhile, Duterte has also forcefully questioned the foundations of Philippine foreign policy, taking aim at existing security agreements with the United States, and most recently threatening to cancel the new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). In the past month, Duterte has called for the expulsion of U.S. Special Forces from the southern island of Mindanao, where they have been advising their Philippine counterparts on counterterror operations since 2001. He also has called for the cancellation of joint patrols with foreign powers within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone in international waters, and for the termination of U.S.-Philippine joint military exercises. Duterte has further suggested that, while reducing security ties to the United States, the Philippines could bolster links with China and Russia.
A major problem, however, is that it is not clear whether any of these comments are instances of Duterte-style bluster and bravado, or actual policy statements, and it is hard to know how to confirm which comments indicate policy shifts. So far, there has been no confirmation from the presidential palace that the Philippine government has formally requested these changes in the security relationship with the United States. Similarly, despite suggesting that Manila would bolster security ties to Moscow and Beijing, Duterte subsequently clarified that he was mainly seeking closer trade and investment ties with Russia and China. But reports suggest that Manila and Beijing are exploring a 25-year military deal that might allow Manila to purchase advanced Chinese weaponry.
There are three possible and interrelated explanations for Duterte’s latest remarks regarding Manila’s security relationship with Washington. First, his comments, while not necessarily meaning an end to joint exercises, are still consistent with his geopolitical vision of the country as more balanced between major foreign powers. Unlike many Philippine politicians, including his predecessor Benigno Aquino III, Duterte has consistently emphasized his preference for an “independent” foreign policy, which, to him, apparently means less dependence on the United States. Duterte believes that his country has been too subservient to Washington, and has repeatedly expressed his doubts about whether the U.S. military would be willing to come to the Philippines’ rescue in an event of war with China in the South China Sea.
Second, Duterte’s latest tirades could be a means of expressing his frustration with Washington over human rights issues. The Obama administration—in addition to many international and domestic human rights organizations—has progressively stepped up its criticism of Duterte’s war on drugs campaign as the casualty count rises and Manila has no clear strategy for dealing with the public health ramifications of the growing drug crackdown. This criticism has, unsurprisingly, not gone over well with the blunt president, who has accused America of interfering in domestic Philippine affairs.
Finally, these remarks could be part of his diplomatic charm-offensive vis-à-vis Beijing. Later this month, Duterte will make his first state visit to China, where the two neighbors are expected to negotiate the outlines of cooperation over the South China Sea, ranging from a joint fisheries agreement regarding the Scarborough Shoal to the establishment of a China-Philippine emergency hotline, as well as other confidence building measures. In exchange, Duterte may tinker with existing Philippine-U.S. security agreements. It is possible, for instance, that the Philippines may relocate annual Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) exercises from the South China Sea to a less controversial site.
It is doubtful though whether Duterte will move ahead with complete severance of existing security agreements, such as the new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) or the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), or the 1951 Philippine-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty. Actually cutting these links this could alienate the Philippine armed forces and security establishment, which is close to and reliant on its U.S. counterparts, as well as undermine the president’s appeal among the population. Surveys consistently show that residents of the Philippines have the most pro-U.S. views of any country in the world. The United States is also home to millions of Filipinos, and is the biggest source of remittances, and one of the largest investors and trade partners of the Philippines. Any significant downgrade in bilateral ties would surely alienate a significant portion of the population.