MANILA — Ranking members of the Philippines government rushed into damage-control mode Friday as they sought to assure their citizens and the rest of the world that the country’s close relationship with the United States remains intact despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s pronouncement that Manila is “separating” from Washington.
Since Duterte took office June 30, the populist (some would say Trumpian) president has responded with anger, defiance, and obscenities to criticism of his campaign to slaughter (and we use advisedly) suspected drug dealers and addicts across the country. Last month, he called President Barack Obama a “son of whore”—prompting the White House to cancel a planned bilateral meeting between the two leaders. This month, he told Obama “you can go to hell” and threatened to “break up with America.”
Now, it would seem, Duterte thinks he can make good on that threat by turning his country into a dependent satellite of Beijing. He shocked even his own administration when he said in a speech in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing: “In this venue, I announce my separation from the United States… both in military, but also economics.’’
Duterte drew cheers from stalwarts of the Chinese Communist Party when he said that in dumping America, “I will be dependent on you.”
On his state visit to Beijing, Duterte held discussions with Chinese Premier Xi Jinping that ended in Xi offering the Philippines $9 billion in loan credits and Duterte agreeing to renew bilateral talks with Xi to resolve the long-festering dispute over maritime and fishing rights in the South China Sea.
The latter agreement is especially puzzling, considering a United Nations tribunal recently ruled in a long-fought case that Manila has de jure access in the sea.
The trip also has seen the two countries agree to $13.5 billion in trade deals.
Among those hastening to tamp down the reaction to Duterte’s remarks was the Philippines’ trade minister, Ramon Lopez, who told CNN that Manila will not “stop trade and investment with the U.S.,” and that the president had merely “decided to strengthen further and rekindle the ties with China” as well as with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), many of whose members are threatened by China.
Also in Manila, a Duterte spokeswoman attempted to minimize the force of Duterte’s words: “We would not like to interpret the pronouncements of the president,” said Maria Banaag, as if that were not, precisely, her job.
The comments from Lopez and Banaag sounded hollow in the face of Duterte’s unequivocal statements, including one in which he told Beijing business leaders that, “America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow.”
As noted, Duterte pivoted to China, in fact, in retaliation for stern criticism from the United States and other Western countries over the bloody anti-drug campaign he launched as soon as he became president—part of an overarching battle against crime.
The U.S., the United Nations, the European Union, and others have condemned the campaign, which has included extrajudicial killings by police and has seen as many as 3,800 Filipinos, many of them poor residents of inner-city barrios, slain just since July 1.
Duterte critics noted that in addition to winning economic benefits from China, the president may be receiving assurance that Beijing will give him a free hand in the drug war.
The Chinese Communist regime itself has a poor human-rights record, has long insisted on a “non-interference” foreign policy—and is highly unlikely to pressure Duterte to observe such fundamental legal principles as probable cause or due process in his anti-drug war, nor demand an end to extrajudicial killings by the Philippines National Police.
“Obviously, the Chinese are not going to be perturbed by human-rights violations,” says a former U.S. diplomat and veteran of the Manila embassy.
In fact, Chinese officials have lauded Duterte’s drug crackdown. Some $15 million of the loan money Beijing has promised is to go to the campaign, although Philippine government officials have said the money will be spent on drug-rehabilitation projects.
Addressing Duterte’s latest salvo in Beijing, the U.S. embassy in Manila said Duterte’s remarks are “creating unnecessary uncertainty.”
“We’ve seen a lot of this sort of troubling rhetoric recently, which is inexplicably at odds with the warm relationship that exists between the Filipino and American people and the record of important cooperation between our two governments,” embassy spokeswoman Molly R. Koscina said in a statement.
Indeed, the United States is very popular among ordinary Filipinos. Many often express a strong affection for America, and say that they appreciate America’s role in liberating the country from the Japanese during World War II.
“I’m not sure about these drug killings.… A lot of Pinoys [Filipinos] like it because they feel safer, even though we all know people in our neighborhoods who are mistakenly killed,” tour driver Armando Pablo tells The Daily Beast. “But we are friends with America and we like Americans. I don’t know how far he [Duterte] will go.”
This Filipino president not only does not thank the United States for any wartime liberation, he suggests that the Japanese would not have bothered to attack the Philippines in the first place if the U.S. had not been in the country. It’s a bizarre claim given the archipelago’s strategic location and Japan’s drive to expand its empire in all directions in the 1930s and 1940s. But Duterte apparently felt comfortable making such a pronouncement in a contentious interview on Al Jazeera.
Duterte, the former mayor of the southern city of Davao, where he first introduced his take-no-prisoners approach to fighting against illegal drugs and where he was known as both “the Dirty Harry of Davao” and “the Punisher,” is famously impetuous and quick to be offended.
His outbursts have become ever more frequent, defiant—and vulgar. He has insisted that he doesn’t “give a shit” about outside opinion, and vowed to continue his drug offensive for another six months, regardless of criticism and despite the fact that the Philippines senate is investigating the extrajudicial killings.
In the past few months, the U.S. has played down Duterte’s insults and threats, hoping he eventually would curb the rhetoric and continue to pursue business, political, and economic cooperation. Washington has been particularly wary of Duterte’s promise to abandon the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, signed by previous president Benigno Aquino, that allows the U.S. to rotate ships, aircraft and personnel through five Philippine bases. The EDCA is considered critical to projecting American power in the Pacific, even as China becomes more powerful and bellicose.
With Duterte apparently in no mood to compromise—he’s even talking about making deals with Russia as well—it remains to be seen whether the his administration and the Filipino people can pull him away from the brink and keep Manila in the West’s embrace.