President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines made quite a splash earlier this year when he insulted U.S. President Barack Obama at the G20 summit in September.
Since then, President Duterte has continued to make his mark on the international stage. Last week, he publicly stated that he had lost faith in Washington after policy makers decided to cancel a transaction which would provide the Philippines with over 24,000 new guns and weapons to be used in their newly renewed and very brutal war on the drug trade.
This is the latest in a string of comments indicating a shift in the Philippine’s foreign policy, most of which centers on stronger ties with China and weakening alignment with the U.S.
In late September, President Duterte announced that the joint patrols of the South China Sea scheduled to take place in October would be the last ones conducted. These patrols have been part of a larger strategy of challenging China’s territorial claim to the area.
At the time of the announcement, President Duterte cited concern over upsetting China as reason for his decision. After President Duterte’s diplomatic visit to Beijing in October, Filipino fishermen were allowed to return to Scarborough Shoal, an area of the South China Sea which both China and the Philippines claim.
Negotiations continue for a more formal arrangement, but it seems China was quick to reward President Duterte for cooperating in this area.
Meanwhile, Australia and Indonesia are discussing beginning patrols including “freedom-of-navigation” exercises in order to continue to challenge China’s claim to the territory. However, the U.S.’s ability to exert pressure on China concerning this issue has certainly been diminished.
President Duterte’s diplomatic visit to China yielded other foreign policy developments as well. During the visit, he announced a military and economic separation from the U.S. His aides scrambled to clarify that they were not cutting off economic ties with the U.S.
Days later, President Duterte explained he merely meant that he intends to pursue foreign policy which may not always be compatible with Washington’s. Other officials stated that the Philippines will maintain relations with the West, but will work toward stronger integration with her neighbors.
President Duterte’s recent comments indicate a shift in focus from the U.S. to China, but did not specify what form it will take.
Despite all the rhetoric of the past few months, the Philippines have not taken any official action to end the mutual defense treaty or otherwise change the status quo of relations between the U.S. and the Philippines. In fact, Secretary of State John Kerry just swore in Sung Kim as ambassador to the Philippines on Nov. 3.
Kerry took the opportunity to reaffirm commitment to the U.S.’s alliance with the Philippines. Nevertheless, Kim certainly has his work cut out for him.
Why should the general American public be concerned about this right now?
First, the Philippines has been a consistent ally of the United States since the Spanish-American War; to lose such a strategic ally in the East at a time when both China and Russia are beginning to reassert influence in the area and are grasping at opportunities to attain more territory would not help matters much as we work to resolve issues in the South China Sea.
Further, as President Duterte becomes increasingly belligerent toward the U.S. he makes moves toward forging closer relationships with China and Russia. Again, this is not good for U.S. interests in the region.
Whether President Duterte will act on the threats he has put forth remains to be seen. However, our newly elected president will have to act fast to decide what our policy will be toward the Philippines and how that will play into our greater international policy for the next four years.
Historically, outgoing presidents are able to accomplish little after the November election, but it will also be important to watch what President Obama chooses to do in his final months in office.