The Philippines’ Hothead President Is Crapping All Over His Country’s Strongest Ally
Rodrigo Duterte threatens to ‘break up’ with the United States
by SEBASTIEN ROBLIN
When it comes to the longstanding U.S.-Philippine alliance, the rhetoric coming out of Washington and Manila might as well be coming from two separate universes. Or three, even.
It’s unclear whose story is the real one. In other words, it’s hard to say where the century-old alliance — once one of the strongest in the region — is heading in this new, volatile era.
On Oct. 4, 2016, Rodrigo Duterte, the newly-elected Philippine president, said that U.S. president Barack Obama “could go to Hell” for criticizing the thousands of vigilante murders occurring in Duterte’s extra-legal anti-drug campaign.
“If you [the United States] don’t want to sell arms, I’ll go to Russia,” Duterte continued. “I sent the generals to Russia and Russia said, ‘Do not worry, we have everything you need, we’ll give it to you.’ And as for China, they said, ‘Just come over and sign and everything will be delivered.’”
Earlier, Duterte had announced that he would kick out the 107 U.S. Special Operations Forces troops assisting Philippine soldiers in their ongoing campaign against Islamic insurgents — for the operators’ own safety, of course. “The Special Forces … they have to go. If they [the insurgents] see an American, the latter will really be killed. Ransomed off, then killed.”
Duterte went on to state that the 2016 edition of the U.S.-Philippine Balikatan war game — until now, an annual event — would be the last one.
Apparently alarmed by his boss’s words, Philippine defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that Duterte was “misinformed,” and the Philippine armed forces “were remiss in providing him the correct information.”
“There is a possibility it would be suspended,” Lorenzana said of the Balikatan exercise, “although the president has not really decided yet.” Lorenzana also said the U.S. Special Forces would remain in Mindanao, after all.
The confusion and mixed messages couldn’t come at a worse time. The Philippine military is pursuing an ambitious, partially U.S.-funded modernization program to counter Chinese expansion into Philippine waters. But the armed forces and Duterte seem to possess different visions.
For its part, the United States is eager to keep The Philippines on it side in the escalating Sino-American conflict. Contrast Duterte’s words with those of U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who on Sept. 29, 2016 insisted that the United States’ alliance with The Philippines remained “ironclad.”
Duterte seems to sense what he considers weakness from the United States. After telling Secretary of State John Kerry that the U.S. ambassador in Manila was a “gay son of a bitch,” Duterte mocked the Americans’ obsequiousness.
“Kerry came here, we had a meal, and he left me and Delfin $33 million,” Duterte commented. “I said, okay, maybe we should offend them more, so this crazy will just give more money, just to make peace. So, it’s all about the money.”
With more than 100 million people, The Philippines is the 12th most-populous country on the planet. However, its military budget is smaller than Belgium’s is.
Decades of sustained U.S. military aid to Manila dried up at the end of the Cold War. In 1995, the Philippine congress passed the Armed Forces of The Philippines Defense Modernization Act in an effort to kick the military back into shape. However, the Asian financial crisis of 1997 put the act on hold.
Over the next 15 years, Philippine troops — with assistance from U.S. Special Forces — focused on fighting Islamic insurgents. After years of battle, the largest rebel group — the Moro Islamic Liberation Front — reached a peace agreement with the government, although violent splinter groups remain active.
Meanwhile, the Philippine military’s inventory of ships and aircraft declined precipitously. By 2005, the country no longer operated any jet fighters and could deploy only a single frigate-size warship, one dating back to World War II.
These deficits came just as The Philippines’ long-running dispute with China over the South China Sea intensified. Both China and The Philippines lay claim to the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal.
The shoal lies just 137 miles from the nearest Philippine archipelago and almost 600 miles from the nearest Chinese territory. The potentially oil-rich Spratlys, also claimed by Vietnam and Malaysia, are roughly 230 miles distant from The Philippines and 1,000 miles away from China.
In recent years, Chinese military and civilian ships have driven Philippine fishing vessels away from the islands and built new artificial islets to serve both as military bases and to create de facto Chinese territory to support Beijing’s claims.
In 2013, the Philippine government challenged the Chinese government’s territorial claims in the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. The tribunal ruled in July 2016 — against the Chinese claim. Beijing had previously stated it would not abide by any ruling.
The Philippine military could barely respond to meaningful Chinese aggression. Consider the eight Philippine marines who reside on the decaying hulk of a World War II landing craft in order to maintain an official presence across from a large Chinese base in the Spratlys.
In 2012, then-president Benigno Aquino passed a revised military modernization act — and found the United States a willing partner to support the venture. In a kind of return to Cold War thinking, Washington sought to boost its allies in order to contain Beijing’s expansion across the Pacific.
The United States and The Philippines were already bound by a 1951 mutual defense treaty to come to each other’s aid if attacked. In 2014, The Philippines doubled down — and passed a new defense cooperation agreement that gave the United States permission to build temporary bases on Philippine soil. The Pentagon has already selected sites for five bases.
Then came Duterte.
Law and order — and murder
Duterte famously disregards political norms. He brags about his sexual exploits, derides human rights and boasts about killing his enemies.
Duterte governed Davao City for 30 years before being elected president in 2016. In addition to his well-publicized support for vigilante killings, he is a self-avowed leftist who promoted policies favoring birth control, impoverished farmers, women’s rights and minorities.
His colloquialisms and tendency to switch back and forth between English and Tagalog endear him to many Filipinos, who registered 86-percent satisfaction with Duterte in an October 2016 poll.
Dutrete has said he holds a “hatred” for the United States. And not for no reason. Many Filipinos resent the United States’ paternalistic occupation of The Philippines after it helped local revolutionaries overthrow Spanish colonizers in 1898.
For decades, U.S. Marines brutally enforced Washington’s own colonial rule. Duterte blames the Marines’ killing of a thousand Moro Muslims in the Battle of Bud Dajo in 1906 as the root of The Philippines’ current trouble with Islamists.
During the Cold War, the United States supported the violent and corrupt dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in order to suppress The Philippines’ pro-communist rebels, with whom Duterte is said to be sympathetic.
There could also be more personal reasons. In high school, Duterte was molested by his American teacher, a Jesuit priest. One incident that Duterte said contributed to his anti-American sentiments relates to a bomb that exploded while in the possession of an American citizen staying in a hotel in Davao in 2005.
Shortly afterward, FBI agents spirited the injured American out of the country, fueling conspiracy theories … and infuriating Duterte.
More recently, Washington has criticized Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, which has encouraged police and vigilante killings of more than 3,600 suspected drug dealers. One husband-and-wife team reportedly received contracts from the police to murder suspected drug dealers for $430 dollars a head.
“Hitler massacred three million [sic] Jews,” Duterte remarked in September 2016. “Now, there are three million drug addicts … I’d be happy to slaughter them.”
He wasn’t kidding. A leaked U.S. State Department diplomatic cable noted that the United States has evidence implicating Duterte in connection with the Davao Death Squad, a paramilitary group responsible for killing more than 1,000 suspected petty criminals.
Obama mentioned he would bring up human rights with Duterte before a planned bilateral meeting in Laos. When told so by a journalist, Duterte raged that he would “curse” the “son of a whore” at the forum. Obama cancelled the meeting, though the two later met informally.
Ironically, criticism from the United States over human rights is unlikely to have real consequences. The U.S. State Department regularly writes critical human rights reports on Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey, yet American military aid and political support for those countries continues. Even with Duterte’s angry tirades, the United States has yet to curtail its aid to The Philippines.
New jets and old cutters
To be sure, The Philippines needs American aid. It lacks the air and sea power to effectively defend its own territory. The current defense modernization act is only now beginning to remedy the shortfall, but even that depends on American largess.
Washington extended Manila $40 million in financing for weaponry in 2015 and $50 million in 2014. Those sums do not include other kinds of military aid such as equipment-donations and training.
The Philippines is upgrading all of its armed services. The air force once operated dozens of F-5 and F-8 supersonic fighters, but more recently has been relegated to using jet trainers and propeller-driven OV-10 Bronco attack planes for close air support.
To rebuild its fast-jet capability, the air force is acquiring 12 FA-50 Golden Eagle lightweight fighters from South Korea, two of which arrived in 2015. The Golden Eagle can fly as fast as Mach 1.5 and carry precision-guided munitions. But it lacks the range to comfortably operate across the Spratlys, and at present its only air-to-air weapon is the short-range Sidewinder missile.
The FA-50 deal cost $427 million, nearly 25 percent of The Philippines’ defense budget for 2013. Duterte criticized the FA-50 purchase in June 2016. “What a waste of money,” he remarked. “You cannot use them for anti-insurgency, which is the problem at the moment. You can only use these for ceremonial fly-by.”
Despite Duterte’s criticism, Manila says it will proceed with the remainder of the Golden Eagle order … and may even procure up to 36 more. The FA-50’s precision-guided weapons could make it a useful counter-insurgency weapon. And while the Golden Eagle is not yet a great air-to-air platform — it really needs longer-range missiles — its primary purpose is to help Philippine pilots transition to bigger, more powerful fighters slated for purchase in 2018.
Manila is considering the U.S. F-16, the Swedish JAS-39 Gripen and the Russian MiG-29. The safe money is on the F-16s.
There are other upgrades in the works. Manila is considering replacing the old OV-10s with six Brazilian-made EMB-314 Super Tucanos. The U.S. Air Force donated two surplus C-130 transports.
The Philippine navy currently operates three frigate-size warships — two of which are 50 year-old former-Hamilton-class coast guard cutters that the United States donated. A third Hamilton-class cutter is being prepped for service. The Philippine navy is considering buying U.S.-made Harpoon anti-ship missiles to arm the old cutters and give them a fighting chance against much-better-armed regional fleets.
The Pentagon recently transferred 142 surplus M-113A2 armored personnel carriers to the Philippine army, which is upgrading 28 of the vehicles with gun turrets. The army is also buying more than 50,000 new assault rifles from the United States.
The Philippines receives the majority of its arms from the United States. Switching to Russian and Chinese weapons could be a difficult transition. Despite his rhetoric, Duterte seems to appreciate that reality. He has said he would keep the modernization program in place, but redirect it toward domestic enemies.
Instead of FA-50 jet fighters, he argued, the military should procure patrol boats and helicopters with night-vision gear for use against insurgents and criminals. In fact, the Philippine military has already acquires such systems — including six Small Unit Riverine Craft from the United States.
Will Manila bow to Beijing?
Duterte said he wants to strengthen The Philippines’ relationship with China instead of pressing his country’s claims to the Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal. This would be inconvenient for the United States.
But does it make sense for The Philippines? Duterte argued that The Philippines would never be able to effectively oppose China, which has 14 times the population and more than twice the per-capita GDP. In the event of war with China, The Philippines would still depend on U.S. naval and air power.
Duterte has expressed his skepticism that Washington would come through in a crisis. “America wasn’t able to do anything” to keep Crimea from being annexed, he argued, ignoring the fact that Ukraine, unlike The Philippines, doesn’t have a mutual defense treaty with the United States.
In the event of “World War III” between the United States and China, Duterte predicted, “there will be no more American aid to talk of.”
As for the 2014 basing agreement with the United States, Duterte has made ambiguous statements implying he might attempt to scrap it … or might not. Duterte said he wants an “independent” foreign policy to prevent The Philippines from being a pawn in the competition between the United States and China over control of the Pacific.
Domestic enemies are Duterte’s primary concern. In addition to his war on drugs, Duterte has announced a new offensive aimed at wiping out Abu Sayyaf, an Islamic terrorist group. On the other hand, he’s pursuing peace talks with communist insurgents.
For all of Duterte’s bluster, it’s clear that the defense establishments in Manila and Washington wish to maintain the existing alliance. The Philippines’ secretaries of state and defense have both downplayed Duterte’s statements as provisional, even as they become increasingly impossible to outright ignore.
Duterte may overcome institutional resistance and truly implement a substantive “break-up” — as he has put it — with the United States. This could involve striking a major new treaty with Beijing, following through with his call to permanently end training and patrols with the U.S. military and pushing ahead major arms deals with China and Russia.
Alternately, the Pentagon and the Philippine armed forces may continue to do their best to ignore Duterte’s heated rhetoric and discretely maintain their relationship — perhaps hoping that the president can be persuaded to change his mind … or at least his words.