Just what is Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte thinking? Last week Duterte visited with China’s leader, Xi Jinping, and then appeared to trample on his country’s relations with the U.S., telling 200 Chinese business leaders in the Great Hall of People, "In this venue, your honors, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States."
"Both in military—not maybe social—but economics also, America has lost," he said.
The Philippines has been the U.S.’s closest ally in Southeast Asia since it became independent in 1946. It once celebrated its independence on July 4 (now June 12), and for a while that day was also called Filipino-American Friendship Day. Filipinos hold America in such high regard, in fact, they have a more favorable opinion of the U.S. than the U.S. does of itself. That’s why Duterte’s words have puzzled so many people: Are they the words of a politician who’s pitting two superpowers against each other? Are they another controversial comment from a man who specializes in them? Does this signal the end of the U.S.-Philippines relationship? Maybe. Yes. Too soon to tell.
Duterte, the leader of the PDP–Laban, the left-wing populist party, has praised Adolf Hitler’s efficiency in mass murder, bragged about his sexual prowess, pondered why he wasn’t the first to assault a raped woman, insulted the pope for causing traffic delays, and boasted about personally executing three men—to name just a few of his controversial statements. But it’s his bloody war on crime—and the rhetoric that backs it—that has drawn the most criticism since he took office in June.
Duterte was previously the mayor of Davao, where he ran an anti-crime campaign that human-rights groups say used death squads to kill more than 1,000 people without trial. When he ran for president, he promised to do the same in all the Philippines.
“You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out. Because I'd kill you,” he said. “I'll dump all of you into Manila Bay, and fatten all the fish there."
He has been true to his word: Some 3,500 people have died in his war on crime, many extrajudicially. Western nations expressed concern. Duterte responded to one such criticism by saying: “I read the condemnation of the European Union against me. I will tell them fuck you.” In that same vein, he called President Obama a “son of a whore.” The U.S. has mostly been mild in its responses (Obama called him a “colorful guy”) though on Monday a senior State Department official said the Filipino president’s consistently contentious remarks have created “uncertainty about the Philippines’ intentions” and its future with the U.S.
The Philippines is now one of Southeast Asia’s strongest economies with GDP growth at about 6 percent a year and trade with the U.S. at $18 billion last year. But even as Filipinos are seeking a more independent voice in global affairs, China’s regional ambitions have many people worried. Never warm, China-Philippines relations had grown worse, exacerbated by the dispute over the South China Sea, which Beijing claims in its entirety. Looming over this tension is the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty under which the U.S. will aid the Philippines in the event of an attack by China. But many Filipinos say they believe the U.S. “does not do anything with, in and for the Philippines unless it serves U.S. interests,” wrote the Manila Times, in an op-ed. Indeed, just before he took the oath of office in June, Duterte said he’d asked the U.S. ambassador to Manila if the U.S. would step in if the dispute with China escalates. "Only if you are attacked," Duterte recalled the envoy saying. That apparently wasn’t a satisfying answer, and Duterte said he’d start talking to China, and while he’s at it, with Russia.
So far, it seems Duterte’s decision has paid off. In a four-day trip last week to China, where he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Duterte came away with $24 billion of funding and pledges of infrastructure investment in exchange for shelving the dispute over the South China Sea.
“I've realigned myself in your ideological flow,” Duterte said to Chinese leaders, “and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world— China, Philippines, and Russia.”
The U.S. wasn’t pleased; neither were some of Duterte’s advisers.
"Let me clarify. The president did not talk about separation," Trade Minister Ramon Lopez said, shortly after Duterte had used the specific word, “separation,” to describe his intended breakup with the U.S. That prompted Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, to say, “I’ve dubbed that person the Filipino Mike Pence”—a reference to Donald Trump’s running mate who has found himself in the position of walking back Trump’s words. And like with Trump in the U.S. election, Duterte’s novel approach to politics has kept people guessing if what he said is what he means. So I spoke with Steven Rood, the Philippine Country Representative of the Asia Foundation, who told me Duterte is treating world leaders like he treated people when he was mayor of Davao.
“It’s his style,” Rood told me, “to push people away and try and let them get back on his good side.”
Despite what he’s said about the U.S., Duterte may simply be playing two superpowers against each other. Rood said Duterte might express strong views, but he doesn’t get in the way of experts carrying out policy. So while he might threaten to kick the U.S. military out, as he did earlier this month, it doesn’t mean he’s talked it over much with his secretary of defense, or that there’s a high likelihood of this happening.
“He just let’s people get on with their jobs and doesn’t interfere,” Rood said, adding “there is a fair amount of flexibility in the bureaucracy.”
And because Duterte says so many contrary things, no one can hold him to any of it. In fact, last Friday, a day after he returned from China, Duterte took it all back. He said he did not want to separate from the U.S., that it now seemed to be “in the best interest of my countrymen to maintain that relationship.”
If Duterte has proven anything—and if we can gain any insight into his latest moves— it’s that he will say whatever is expedient. Duterte admitted as much last August, when he recounted to reporters how upset the U.S. Embassy became after he called Ambassador Philip Goldberg a “gay son of a bitch.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry then came to visit Duterte and Delfin Lorenzana, the Philippines secretary of national defense.
"Kerry came here,” Duterte said, “we had a meal, and he left me and Delfin $33 million. I said, ‘OK, maybe we should offend them more.”