Philippines: ‘America, Get Out … But Maybe Not Just Yet’
by Kieren Underwood
When news of a brash, politically incorrect, brutal, and fast-talking Filipino presidential candidate finally filtered into mainstream Western media, it was hard to tell what would happen if the man was actually elected. I had heard about Rodrigo Duterte—also known as “The Punisher,” “Duterte Harry” and the “Donald Trump of the Philippines”—before the election campaign started. A Filipino friend had told me stories about his mayor in Davao City, a man known for cleaning up some of the worst crime rates in the Philippines by waging an illegal war on drug bosses. The casual observer in the West knew Duterte was brutally effective with crime and crass in dealing with women. As for his foreign policy, it would be hard to predict.
Discussing what Duterte’s foreign policy would be with a few colleagues brought only a little clarity. It was suggested he was China-friendly, but whether or not the uncompromising leader at home would be the same abroad was unsure. What would he do about the South China Sea conflict? What would he do about Chinese aggression?
The Trumpet has predicted that the Philippines will likely be part of an Eastern alliance, but we do not know how it will happen. Would President Duterte be the one to swing away from America and over to the Asians, fulfilling another Trumpet prediction of America’s evaporating international influence?
Since assuming the presidency in June, Duterte has generated so many headlines, the comparison to the Clinton and Trump scandal trains is hard to avoid. Duterte has read aloud a list of 150 government officials involved in drug trade during a speech, used profanities against European Union lawmakers, and sworn in reference to the president of the United States. Duterte has a certain twisted appeal, like that of other strongmen such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin—another leader who has enabled the deaths of thousands. Some Westerners are sick of politically correct nonsense. They view with a decent amount of respect a man who calls the United Nations “stupid” and threatens to leave it.
But what is his foreign policy? Now that five months have passed, it is emerging—through his usual provocative language.
On October 7, the Philippine president warned the United States not to treat his nation “like a doormat.” He was blunt: “You’ll be sorry for it. I will not speak with you. I can always go to China.” In the same speech, he promised to dismantle the nation’s 65-year military alliance with the United States.
The same day, the Philippines’ defense minister said the country would be able to manage without American aid.
In reality, the Philippines needs the aid. It can’t sit there between regional powers with no friends. As Geopolitical Monitor noted, the nation has “some 101 million people, a country comprising of thousands of islands, an uninspiring GDP per capita, and a dreary military budget.” With Philippine military spending at $3.5 billion, even the supposed constitutionally “pacifist” Japan, with a budget of $42 billion, makes the Philippines
look like a junior varsity team.
So before Duterte told the U.S. that it would have to withdraw its military forces from the country’s south, or that its military exercises would be “the last,” or that the Philippines has “long ceased to be a colony,” he had to make sure he had another partner as backup.
That partner, for Duterte, it seems, could be China.
So far the switch in rhetoric hasn’t brought instant Chinese cooperation. Beijing has been comfortable to sit on the fence before any big decisions are made. Duterte even stood up to the Chinese in the South China Sea dispute by avoiding signing an agreement which would “permit” Chinese fishermen to return to the disputed Scarborough Shoal. But for all the lack of concrete deals, the rhetoric has been somewhat returned. It was a big day when Duterte met with China’s ambassador Zhao Jianhua in Davao City in June. Since then, Zhao has spoken on the sun “shining
beautifully on a new chapter of bilateral relations” between China and the Philippines.
Despite all of Duterte’s inflammatory comments, the predictive geopolitical company Stratfor says “China harbors no illusion that the Philippines will sever ties with the United States.” When it’s not a period of crisis, geopolitical shifts move slowly. Stratfor makes that prediction based on the long history of the United States military in the Philippines. A generally pro-U.S. Philippines has been the norm for over six decades. Even now, 92 percent of Filipinos have a favorable view of America, making it the most pro-American country on Earth—even more so than America.
But the nation could still undergo an eastward shift.
On October 20, before hundreds of Chinese businessmen, Duterte announced, seemingly ad-lib, his “separation from the United States … both in military and economics also.” It was greeted with applause among the Chinese businessmen, but the spin-doctors came in to cover for him. News sites wrote about the announcement with headings such as “What the president meant.” It was clear his mouth got ahead of his actions, because when he returned to the Philippines, he retracted the statements, saying, “It is not a severance of ties,” and that he was trying to gain more independence from the United States. He continued, saying, “It’s in the best interest of my countrymen to maintain that relationship.” Some of the backpedaling may have been because his meetings with Chinese leadership did not yield the results he had hoped for.
To understand the general direction these trends are moving toward, please read our free booklet Russia and China in Prophecy. As one might gather from the title, the Philippines is treated peripherally. The prime movers are those with the sprawling populations and powerful industries and militaries. But these key nations are supported by weaker ones. At the Trumpet, we think Rodrigo Duterte’s administration could be moving the Philippines toward an Eastern alliance. Even if he’s not the man to ultimately do so, he is definitely sowing the seeds.