Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte demanded the departure of the United States military personnel in the southern islands of Mindanao. Mindanao is the Muslim-majority islands of the Philippines and the islands have been suffering from insurgency and terrorism. The remaining US military personnel are the military advisers for counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. Quoted from the Wall Street Journal, President Duterte argued that the US military in the southern islands could be “a valuable target for the extremist Abu Sayyaf militant groups” and the remaining of the US military advisers would do nothing helpful but worsen the security situation in Mindanao.
The Philippines, as a former US colony, remains closely tied with the US. Arguably, the Philippines is one of the US’s most important allies in the Asia-Pacific region under the San Francisco System. Before Duterte took over the power in the Philippines, the US-Philippine relations had been strengthening facing the security challenges posed by the rising China. The US has been a strong supporter of the Philippines regarding the South China Sea disputes. The previous President Benigno Aquino III urged the US to re-focus on the Asia-Pacific region to balance the rising Chinese power. The US did come back to the Asia-Pacific region with the rebalance strategy. The strong US support also facilitated the South China Sea arbitrary that happened earlier in 2016.
The setbacks of the US-Philippines relations started to occur after the election of the incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte. President Duterte does not seem willing to cooperate with the US internationally and domestically.
Internationally, the Philippines, as the winner of the South China Sea arbitration, did not take a tough stance facing China’s pressure. As soon as the result of the arbitration was released, President Duterte called a negotiation with China. He further criticised the US and the previous Aquino government for manipulating the South China affairs. President Duterte also suggested that the Philippines should turn to China and Russia for weapons. More severely, President Duterte referred to President Barack Obama as a “son of a whore” in his speech in the early weeks of September 2016. The speech directly contributed to the cancellation of the meeting between President Obama and President Duterte and caused a major setback in the US-Philippines relations.
Domestically, President Duterte is undertaking the controversial drug war. Facing the US accusation of human rights violation and the cancellation of the meeting, President Duterte called the departure of the US military advisers from Mindanao.
President Duterte’s decisions may seem irrational to many observers. However, those decisions might be rational by observing from another angle.
Internationally, the soft stance taken by the Philippines in the South China Sea arbitration may result in losing grounds in the South China Sea. However, it might bring peace to the Philippines at the same time. The Philippines may become the first target if there is a war broke out in the South China Sea. Compared with the strong US allies, namely Japan and Australia, it is hard to anticipate the US trading Los Angles for Manila in the situation of conflict escalation. Therefore, President Duterte’s decision of negotiating with China rather than intimidating was the most effective way to de-escalate tensions and distance the militarily-weak Philippines from the potential of being involved in major power conflicts. While conducting diplomacy with the US, President Duterte called the US to leave Mindanao. This move could be seen as an approach to minimise the US leverage on the Philippines. Smart or not, the approach could minimise the chance of the Philippines to be involved in the potential Sino-US strategic competition.
Internally, President Duterte can focus more on the domestic issues if he can successfully side-line the international strategic challenges. However, President Duterte’s approach in solving domestic issues, namely the war on drugs, is questionable. President Duterte’s tough stance on combating drugs in the Philippines has resulted in over 3500 people’s death with an average of 44 deaths every day. He’s tough approach has resulted in international concerns and criticisms. Paradoxically, President Duterte still has a strong domestic supports as the majority domestic Pilipino believes that Duterte’s approach is aiming at pursuing “the greater good.”
Whether President Duterte’s approach in solving domestic issues could or should be sustained remains to be seen. However, his foreign policy approach does contribute to crisis de-escalation in the South China Sea which could distance the Philippines from major power competition.
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