He Did It Again: Philippine President Keeps Insulting The U.S. (And Obama) | KUOW News and Information

He Did It Again: Philippine President Keeps Insulting The U.S. (And Obama)

Oct 5, 2016
Originally published on October 5, 2016 3:12 pm

The U.S. and the Philippines are long-standing allies, but you would never know it from the way President Rodrigo Duterte is talking these days.

Since his election in June, Duterte has been unleashing anti-American rhetoric, which has included demands that the U.S. withdraw special operations forces helping to fight Islamists in the southern Philippines. He has also threatened to cancel joint naval patrols and warns this will be the last year the two countries will hold joint military exercises, saying they haven't benefited the Philippines.

"Instead of helping us, the first to criticize is this State Department, so you can go to hell, Mr. Obama, you can go to hell," Duterte said Tuesday.

And in separate remarks the same day, Duterte made a separate threat: "Eventually I might, in my time, I will break up with America." Then he added: "I would rather go to Russia and to China."

This was not the first time but only the most recent time that he has publicly insulted the U.S. president.

"We knew he was brash. We knew he was bold and spoke off the cuff, but I don't think anyone expected him to call the president of the United States a 'son of a bitch,' " says Jeff Smith, the director of Asian Security Programs at the American Foreign Policy Council.

Jonah Blank, an Asia analyst at the Rand Corp., says Duterte often will back off from those statements shortly after he makes them.

"There is no filter for Duterte. Whatever he happens to be feeling at any moment comes right out of his mouth," says Blank, noting this is not the way political leaders typically function. "So the U.S. has to try to figure out — is this policy or is this just a rash statement?"

Duterte's actions come shortly after the Philippines won a landmark case before an international tribunal challenging China's extensive territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The U.S. isn't taking a position on the overlapping claims but saw the July decision as a way to push back against Beijing's increasingly aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, says Smith.

"I know the Obama administration had hoped to leverage the decision, which really was a resounding defeat for China, toward resolving these disputes by laws and norms, rather than by force," he says.

Smith says Duterte's outbursts threaten to undermine a key strategy for the Obama administration: the so-called pivot to Asia. This is meant to build up security and diplomatic relations with Asian partners, especially with a resurgent China laying claim to most of the South China Sea.

The Philippines is an important player in the pivot strategy, Smith says.

"To have Duterte do a 180 and essentially move the Philippines out of the U.S. camp and toward China really shakes up the regional order, I think in ways that are unfavorable to U.S. interests," he says.

Duterte is angry at U.S. criticism of his violent anti-drug campaign, which has left more than 3,000 drug suspects dead, says Vikram Singh, a former Pentagon official in charge of defense relations with the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations. Singh says Duterte's rhetoric also feeds into a resentment many Filipinos have about U.S. rule in the Philippines during the first half of the 20th century.

"I think he's trying to demonstrate that he's an independent and strong leader by his willingness to stand up even to the United States," he says.

But what works at home doesn't necessarily work on the world stage, says Smith.

"He doesn't understand the importance of words and how much a president's speech and language can affect the trajectory of the long-term alliance," he says. He notes that Duterte's brash actions are potentially very destructive to the interests of the Philippines.

The question is, what can the U.S. do about an important but volatile leader?

"One of the things that the U.S. is trying to do is trying not to get caught up in this cycle of policymaking by pique," says Rand's Blank. "So every time Duterte says something provocative, not simply jumping in and assuming that it's going to be translated to policy."

Still, despite Duterte's actions, Singh, the former Pentagon official, says relations between the U.S. and the Philippines are very strong

"The government relationships at every level — economic, military — people who care about U.S.-Philippine relations are probably all very worried, and they're all talking to each other," he says. But, he adds, "The good thing is those relationships are what you sort of see through a bad period."

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The U.S. and the Philippines are allies, but you wouldn't know it from the way Rodrigo Duterte talks about the U.S. The Philippines' new leader has sworn at President Obama, and he's threatened to, quote, "break up" with America and turn to Russia or China. As NPR's Jackie Northam reports, this leaves the Obama administration wondering how to respond.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Since being elected in late June, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has dialed up the anti-American rhetoric, demanded the U.S. withdraw special operations forces fighting Islamists in the south of the Philippines and threatened to cancel joint naval patrols and military exercises.

JONAH BLANK: There is no filter for Duterte. Whatever he happens to be feeling at any moment comes right out of his mouth.

NORTHAM: Jonah Blank, an Asia analyst at the Rand Corporation, says Duterte will often back off those statements shortly afterwards.

BLANK: And that's not the way political leaders typically function, so the U.S. has to try to figure out, is this policy, or is this just a rash statement?

NORTHAM: Duterte's actions threaten to undermine a key strategy for the Obama administration. The so-called pivot to Asia is meant to build up security and diplomatic relations with Asian partners, especially with a resurgent China laying claim to most of the South China Sea. Jeff Smith with the American Foreign Policy Council says the Philippines is an important player in the pivot strategy.

JEFF SMITH: To have Duterte do a 180 and essentially move the Philippines out of the U.S. camp and toward China really shakes up the regional order.

NORTHAM: Duterte is angry at U.S. criticism of his violent anti-drug campaign which has left over 3,000 people dead, says Vikram Singh. He's a former Pentagon official in charge of defense relations with Southeast Asian nations. Singh says Duterte's rhetoric also feeds into a deep-seeded resentment many Filipinos have about America's colonial legacy.

VIKRAM SINGH: I think he's trying to demonstrate that he is an independent and strong leader by his willingness to stand up to even the United States.

NORTHAM: But what works at home doesn't necessarily work on the world stage, says Jeff Smith.

SMITH: He doesn't understand the importance of words and how much a president's speech and language can affect the trajectory of long-term alliance.

NORTHAM: The question is, what can the U.S. do about an important but volatile leader? The Rand Corporation's Jonah Blank says don't buy into his games.

BLANK: One of the things that the U.S. is trying to do is trying not to get caught up in this cycle of policymaking by pique - so every time that Duterte says something provocative, not simply jumping in and assuming that that is going to be translated to policy.

NORTHAM: Former Pentagon official Singh says despite Duterte, relations between the U.S. and the Philippines are very strong.

SINGH: Government relationships at every level - economic, military - the people who care about U.S.-Philippine relations are probably all very worried, and they're all talking to each other. The good thing is those relationships are sort of what you see through a bad period.

NORTHAM: But Singh says you can't deny that the leader of a country determines how it will treat its friends and allies. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.