Danger in Manila as US-Philippines ties fray
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