By Jacob L. Shapiro
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is making headlines yet again for insulting the United States. Earlier this week, Duterte threatened to “break up” with the U.S. and told U.S. President Barack Obama that he could “go to hell.” Duterte makes headlines because he curses a lot. But he should actually make headlines because he is playing a very high-stakes political game, trying to position the Philippines between China and the United States, while simultaneously challenging the traditional power centers within his country.
On Tuesday, Duterte expressed anger at the United States for allegedly refusing to sell the Philippines certain weapons. Duterte said he could turn to Russia or China, who would be more than willing to supply Manila with the weapons that it needs. This is where his threat to “break up” with the U.S. came from, though many of the articles about the speech neglected to quote the words that came before it: “Eventually I might, in my time, I will break up with America.” It loses a little of its brimstone when you factor in the maybes, though Duterte certainly left no doubt about where he thought Obama should go.
The idea of the Philippines being able to turn to Russia is nonsensical, so let’s briefly evaluate the prospect of a China-Philippines alliance. China is an important economic partner for the Philippines. About 16 percent of the Philippines’ imports last year came from China, Manila’s largest import provider, and about 10.9 percent of all Philippine exports went to China, its third largest export destination. But China is also the Philippines’ most dangerous competitor in the region, and crucially, the Philippines doesn’t have the power to challenge China, or even to defend its claims from Chinese advances in the South China Sea. This leads to two fairly simple options for the Philippines. Either it can accept China’s supremacy and do Beijing’s bidding, or it can rely on the support of a superior naval power whose mainland is almost 7,000 miles away.
Duterte can’t like either of these options, nor can he like the fact that a strong relationship with the U.S. is what preserves the most independence for the Philippines in the foreign policy realm. The U.S. is also arguably more important to the Philippines economically – the Philippines actually exports more to the U.S. than to China. As a result of the Philippines’ dependence on the U.S., Duterte is attempting to do what any leader in a similar situation would – find some balance in the relationship. It is a relationship with little balance historically. From 1898 to 1946, the Philippines was a U.S. colony, and until 1991, the U.S. had conventional forces permanently deployed in the Philippines. The U.S.-Philippine relationship has been dominated first by an imperialistic and later a paternalistic United States.
The real low point in U.S.-Philippine relations was arguably 1991, when the Philippines kicked out U.S. forces because the Cold War ended and China was not yet rising. The Philippines could afford to indulge in a policy that mainly benefited its national pride. But even at this moment of divergent interests between Manila and Washington, the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty remained in place – and is still in place today. That treaty was buttressed in March, when the Philippines and the United States signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which allows the U.S. to once again deploy conventional forces at five bases in the Philippines.
Duterte doesn’t want to depend on the U.S. But he also knows that the U.S. and its Pacific allies are the only things preventing China’s total domination of the South China Sea. If Duterte wants to buy weapons from China or Russia or whoever else is willing to sell them, that’s all well and good. As long as the Mutual Defense Treaty remains in place, the EDCA allows for U.S. military presence and China continues to threaten Philippine sovereignty, Duterte’s pronouncements are, from the U.S. point of the view, hot air.
Domestically, the situation is different. Duterte has put himself in a very dangerous position at home, having climbed to the top from outside the traditional power structure and declaring a war on corruption, militancy and drugs. The day before Duterte made his most recent litany of profane statements aimed at the U.S., there were reports in local media of a potential coup against Duterte in the works. Duterte has also in recent weeks made a point of publicly reaching out to the military after rumors that officers from the armed forces were “quite wary” of him, according to Bloomberg. Coup rumors in the Philippines are a dime a dozen, but they are so common precisely because there have been many coup attempts in the country, and an outspoken reformer like Duterte who has not yet consolidated power is extremely vulnerable.
What Duterte has going for him is that he is, at least for now, loved and trusted by the public. Many compare Duterte to Donald Trump because of Duterte’s penchant for controversial remarks. One key difference between Duterte and Trump is that one is extremely well-liked domestically and one isn’t. A poll by Pulse Asia Research in July estimated that 91 percent of Filipinos trusted their new president. Real Clear Politics has Trump’s unfavorable rating at over 57 percent, and peaking as high as 64.5 percent earlier this spring. Duterte has no shortage of enemies in the Philippines, including the various drug lords, militias and oligarchs that have historically dominated Philippine politics. But as long as Duterte is this popular, it will be very difficult for anyone to get rid of him. A popular backlash by 91 percent of Filipinos against someone trying to challenge Duterte would be overwhelming.
And this explains why Duterte’s harsh language towards the U.S. and others is more for domestic consumption than for the global headlines they so easily make – because Duterte needs to maintain that level of popular support right now. The U.S. happens to be an easy target for Duterte to pick on – the vestiges of colonialism are not forgotten quickly in any country, and certainly not in the Philippines. Duterte scores points at home by projecting defiance against the United States, just as he scores points at home by his very tough and public stance on tackling on the Philippines’ serious drug, militancy and corruption problems.
Those outside of the system see only Duterte’s quotes and the chaos in the country and dismiss him as a mercurial fanatic or a crazy loon. Many are appalled, for example, at Duterte’s support for the extrajudicial killings of drug dealers, but those who are appalled don’t live in a country where as much as 10 percent of the population is addicted to crystal meth. (For a frame of reference, less than 0.2 percent of U.S. citizens use meth according to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.) Duterte is a crass man. He says many things in public that most only say in private. But he is far from crazy and he’s not about to break up with the United States. He is fighting chaos at home and an aggressive China nearby, while his country is caught between two stronger and increasingly competitive powers in the United States and China. He’s got a lot to curse about.