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Will Duterte Dump the U.S. and Dance with China?

Will Duterte Dump the U.S. and Dance with China?

A US Marine instructs a Philippine soldier. (Gabriel Mistral/Getty Images)

Coming just days ahead of his first state visit to Beijing next week, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte promised to end the 65-year military alliance with the U.S., during a speech on October 8th in southern Davao city. In his comments, Duterte warned Washington, “For as long as I am there, do not treat us like a doormat because you’ll be sorry for it. I will not speak with you. I can always go to China.” 

Duterte also promised to end the 28 annual military exercises with U.S. forces, while also threatening to call off the 10-year Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), signed by Duterte’s predecessor, which allows for a rotating U.S. military presence at five sites.

His defense secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, is seemingly on board, announcing the eventual removal of the 107 American troops involved in operating surveillance drones against Islamic militants. Lorenzana said he would ask the Philippines Congress for $50-100 million to replace military aid from its American treaty ally.

Under the U.S. Foreign Military Financing program, the Philippines is currently the largest recipient of U.S. funds in the Asia-Pacific region. U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby claims U.S. assistance to the Philippines in the coming fiscal year is $180 million.  “We have been allies since 1951,” he said. “All we got are hand-me-downs, no new equipment. The Americans failed to beef up our capabilities to be at par with what is happening in the region.” Lorenzana is expected to travel soon to Beijing and Moscow to seek defense equipment.


U.S. military forces prepare for the annual Philippines-U.S. live fire amphibious landing exercise north of Manila, Philippines. (Reuters)

Other top officials in Duterte’s administration are falling in line with the president’s tough, independent approach. Earlier this month, Foreign Affairs chief Perfecto Yasay Jr. declared the Philippines would break the “shackles of dependency” on the U.S. which treats them “as little brown brothers not capable of true independence and freedom.” In his statement, Yasay hailed Duterte’s new foreign policy “towards an independent track in pursuing the overriding national interest and in upholding and protecting our sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Yasay further called for “an end to our nation’s subservience to United States’ interests.”

Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo is also on message, stating that the country’s national interest, under the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement, the Mutual Defense Treaty and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, will be reviewed, “either to expand them, enhance them, or remove provisions onerous to the interests of the government.

Manila’s newly-found belligerence toward the U.S. is traced by some to the appeal of a populist, nationalistic strongman leader such as Duterte, who promises to make strong a country with a weak military, as Chinese fishing boats and coast guard ships continue to encroach upon Philippine territorial waters. His harsh crackdown on the drug trade has drawn widespread criticism from the E.U. and the U.S., and he claims the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines told him privately the U.S. will defend the Philippines “Only if you are attacked.” 

Evidently, Duterte was hoping the July 12 favorable ruling from The Hague (negating Beijing’s claims to 90% of the South China Sea) might spur the U.S., under the 50-year-old Mutual Defense Treaty, to assist Manila in asserting its claims in the disputed waters.

Yet the harsh reality remains that if Duterte chooses to annul defense cooperation (and protection) with the U.S., the Philippine defense forces, Foreign Affairs chief Yasay admits, “remain grossly incapable in meeting the security threats that we face from potential foes.”

Some analysts argue the tough talk is only a negotiating tactic—that Duterte is threatening the U.S. alliance to appease Beijing and Moscow in the hope of winning greater concessions of military and economic aid out of the two nations. But this is a dangerous strategy coming from a country with a weak military and a weakening military alliance with the world’s superpower – its largest supplier of arms.  

Many potential pitfalls exist under Duterte’s strategy of switching dance partners. Is there enough support in the Philippines Congress to switch military aid from the U.S. to Russia or China? Will Chinese and Russian military equipment be compatible with existing American systems? Will Beijing and Moscow sniff desperation and reduce their offers of support?

Will big business, activists and the powerful Catholic Church (all of whom overthrew Joseph Estrada as president) come under Duterte’s wing and support his new foreign policy? And lastly, while Duterte’s approval ratings remain as high as previous presidents, will the 92% of Filipinos who hold favorable ratings of America maintain their approval of Duterte if the U.S. alliance ends?  



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666