In a stunning and utterly unexpected turn, the new President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte announced yesterday his country’s “separation” from the US, saying “America has lost”. Given the many disputes between the Philippines and China, including armed stand-offs, and the long-standing, treaty-backed alliance with the United States the announcement came as a complete surprise, even from a man who has compared himself to Hitler. If Duterte follows his words with actions, withdrawing from the treaty signed with the US, American efforts to counter China in Asia would be seriously damaged.
Before the announcement, the Philippines was the cornerstone of US strategic planning in Asia. The US’ main allies in Asia are the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea. South Korea is fixated (and rightly so) on the threat from North Korea. The Japanese military is still legally prohibited from operating beyond its own territory in anything but providing escort and participating in UN approved operations. This leaves the Philippines as really the only ally the US can rely on to stand up to China, and for a long time the Philippines has indeed been the most vocal critic of China’s actions in the South China Sea. All this has now been thrown in doubt. But the announcement does not just hamper the US’ ability to counter China, but also that of other nations in the region. The Philippines was the first, and so far only, country to actually bring China to court over its actions in the South China Sea and received a ruling heavily in its favor. But if the Philippines no longer stands up to China, and ignores the advantage the ruling gave, it becomes much harder for other countries in the region to build off of that legal challenge to China’s actions.
Duterte is widely popular in the Philippines, evident given his massive margin of victory in the Presidential elections this year. Since then however, Duterte has embarked on a remarkably bloody anti-drug campaign with thousands killed in just the past few months. He has supported vigilante violence and extra-judicial killings and has also stated that journalists are not “exempt from assassination”. Furthermore, given the massive popularity of the United States amongst most Filipinos, especially compared to China, his breaking of ties with the US may be the final straw for most people. But Duterte has another six years in office, and if his first 100 days are any indicator, it will be a wild ride.