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President Duterte is talking tough. Will it cost the Philippines?

- October 28, 2016

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is taking a dim view of his country’s long-standing partnership with the United States. In October 2016, Duterte announced to his Chinese audience, “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow … there are three of us against the world — China, Philippines and Russia.”

The Philippine leader called for a review of the recently signed Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, threatening U.S. rights to access Philippine bases. Such statements have put policymakers in Manila and Washington on edge regarding their ability to continue joint security operations in the Asia-Pacific.

It is easy to dismiss such rhetoric as polemics, but harsh words come at a cost. The Philippine president is well known for making flamboyant statements, even referring to President Obama as a “son of a whore.” Perhaps in these latest statements, Duterte was pandering to his Chinese hosts in return for economic goodies, or making noise about his country’s U.S. alliances.

Sovereignty is a touchy subject in the Philippines

Every nation-state has a right to make its own foreign policy choices, including which nations to align with. The Philippines, once colonized by Spain and the United States, is particularly sensitive to issues of sovereignty.

My research on the anti-U. S. base protests that ultimately led to the closure of U.S. bases in the Philippines in 1991 shows how these protests became an issue of national sovereignty. As one Philippine senator declared when casting his vote against U.S. bases in 1991, “We want friendship with America … But we do not want servitude. We do not want terms that degrade our dignity as a people.” Duterte’s current posturing on U.S.-Philippine relations reflects a similar sentiment in favor of greater foreign policy independence.

These statements leave no middle ground

The Philippine president’s recent claims, however, have a zero-sum quality that is worrying — Manila either swings full tilt to Beijing or to Washington. Unlike the Philippine discourse in the 1990s, there appears to be no middle ground.

The Philippines stand to gain political and economic benefits via closer ties with China. Chinese investments would help sustain Philippine economic growth, which reported a better-than-expected 6.9 percent growth last quarter.

Bilateral discussions with China may also ease tensions over maritime disputes in the South China Sea. But there are three looming opportunity costs if the Philippines walks away from its ties with the United States:

1) Philippine national security

There is no guarantee that China’s ambitions will coincide with Philippine interests in the long term. History tells us that rising great powers usually put their own interests first, steamrolling the concerns of neighboring states when interests collide. Overtures to China may benefit the Philippines now. But what if China and the Philippines clash again over maritime rights in the South China Sea? The Philippine-U. S. alliance is still the surest bet against external aggression.

Currently, the Philippines’ security infrastructure is closely integrated with this alliance. Manila takes advantage of U.S. financing, logistical support, training, weapons, and information and intelligence. The Armed Forces of the Philippines spend less per capita than any other Association of Southeast Asian Nations country, likely because it is under U.S. protection. The Philippine-U. S. alliance and the presence of U.S. forces thus fills a critical gap in Philippine national security.

2) Rule of law in the Philippines

Duterte’s four-month crackdown on the country’s drug dealers and drug users has left several thousand dead. The ongoing extrajudicial executions, despite criticism from the United States and the European Union, suggest that Duterte means business.

By aligning with China and Russia, and dismissing the concerns of other countries over human rights in the Philippines, Duterte seeks partners who will refrain from criticizing his domestic policies. High domestic approval ratings combined with his stated shift toward authoritarian countries suggests that Duterte will continue his illiberal approach to eradicating drug crime unchecked.

3) Filipino American ties

Filipino citizens tend to hold the United States in high regard, according to Pew Global Attitudes surveys. With 3.4 million Filipino Americans in the United States, strong personal ties will continue regardless of Duterte’s foreign policy positions.

However, the continued rhetoric against the United States may lead to a decline in political relations — and that could create second-order problems. This may range from the awkwardness of ordinary Filipinos having to answer for their country’s seemingly anti-U. S. orientation to the possibility of losing major U.S. foreign direct investments and up to $150 million in development aid. Duterte’s recent comments have already galvanized a segment of civil society to hold protests against the U.S. military presence outside the U.S. Embassy in Manila this week.

For now, level heads within the Philippine bureaucracy seem to understand the importance of maintaining a strong bilateral relationship. The broad consensus forged among Philippine political elites linking Philippine-U. S. relations to their national security runs much deeper and wider than one individual, even if that individual is the president. These elites include cabinet officials, bureaucrats in the foreign affairs ministry or defense department and government advisers.

Nevertheless, it may take some deft navigating around Duterte’s verbal firebombs if U.S. and Filipino diplomats hope to keep up the strong bilateral relationship.

Andrew Yeo is associate professor of politics at Catholic University of America. He is the author of “Activists, Alliances, and Anti-U.S. Base Protests.”