Dan­ger in Manila as US-Philip­pines ties fray

The Myanmar Times - - News -

THERE is no sub­tlety about Ro­drigo Duterte, the pres­i­dent of the Philip­pines. He has waged a bru­tal ex­tra­ju­di­cial cam­paign against sup­posed drug deal­ers and users, killing thou­sands with­out due process. On Septem­ber 30, he com­pared him­self to Hitler in de­scrib­ing his de­sire to ex­ter­mi­nate deal­ers and ad­dicts.

Pre­vi­ously, he crudely in­sulted Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, lead­ing to the can­ce­la­tion of a meet­ing be­tween the two, fol­lowed by his ex­pres­sion of re­gret and an in­for­mal con­ver­sa­tion. He de­clared that he would “cross the Ru­bi­con” in his ties with the United States – a long-time ally – and put out a trade and eco­nomic wel­come mat for “the other side of the ide­o­log­i­cal bar­rier”, China and Rus­sia.

On Septem­ber 26, Mr Duterte said that dur­ing a re­cent sum­mit of East Asian lead­ers in Laos, he had in­formed Rus­sian Prime Min­is­ter Dmitry Medvedev that he was “about to cross the Ru­bi­con” with the United States. “I would need your help in ev­ery­thing – trade, com­merce – and I will open up,” he said he told Mr Medvedev. Asked by a reporter what he meant by “cross the Ru­bi­con”, he said it was “a point of no re­turn”.

What is go­ing on? For starters, Mr Duterte has a big mouth and in his first months in of­fice he has been un­re­strained. He bris­tled at crit­i­cism of the drug war from the United States and Europe. The anti-drug cam­paign has been rep­re­hen­si­ble, and the crit­i­cism de­served.

But at the same time, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the United States and the Philip­pines is key to the suc­cess of a US pivot to Asia, and as an off­set to China’s in­creas­ingly ag­gres­sive ex­pan­sion­ism in the South China Sea, build­ing airstrips and bases on an ar­chi­pel­ago also claimed by the Philip­pines and a half-dozen other na­tions. The United States and the Philip­pines have a de­fence treaty dat­ing to 1951, and the Philip­pines was a ma­jor out­post for US forces dur­ing the Viet­nam War. Al­though there was a break­down over the US bases in 1992, joint ex­er­cises con­tin­ued, and in 2014 the two coun­tries signed a 10-year agree­ment en­vi­sion­ing a stronger US de­fence pres­ence in the Philip­pines. Over the past week, while on a visit to Viet­nam, Mr Duterte an­nounced that this month’s joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cises with the United States would be the last while he is pres­i­dent.

Taken at face value, Duterte’s state­ments sug­gest an alarm­ing turn away from the United States. We no­tice that, af­ter many of his out­ra­geous com­ments – that the Philip­pines might leave the United Na­tions; that US forces have to leave the south­ern is­land of Min­danao; that Mr Obama was a “son of a bitch”; that the joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cises are end­ing – his as­so­ci­ates and spokesper­sons have stepped in to say he didn’t re­ally mean quite what he said. We un­der­stand that Duterte has a fire­brand style pop­u­lar at home. But if he im­ple­ments his threats to de­grade the al­liance with the United States, nei­ther na­tion will ben­e­fit. – The Washington Post

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