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Applying the Duterte filter to US-Philippine relations

Applying the Duterte filter to US-Philippine relations
Published 12 Aug 2016 

Many hoped  and others feared that US-Philippine relations would deteriorate under the Duterte Administration that came into power on 30 June. There are good reasons for this preliminary judgement.

The relationship became much closer under the Aquino Administration, highlighted by the signing in 2014 of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement against the concerns of a majority of the Philippine Senate. After 2012, Aquino determined that China posed a major threat to Philippine sovereignty and closer relations with the US was part of the necessary response. President Aquino, Foreign Secretary Del Rosario and Defense Secretary Gazmin had all lived in the US, Aquino while is family was in political exile and Del Rosario for most of his education.

During the presidential campaign, Rodrigo Duterte questioned the utility of the alliance with the US and threatened to sever ties with the Philippines' largest source of foreign direct investment, remittances and military assistance after the US Ambassador chided him over a particularly offensive and misogynist 'rape joke.' Duterte prides himself on his militant leftist political origins, the main source of rabid anti-Americanism in the Philippines, opposed US-Philippine military exercises when he was mayor of Davao City, and wants closer, more economically focused relations with China. More recent reported comments again crudely criticising Ambassador Goldberg and contrasting the US negatively with China could reinforce this view of a pending bilateral break.

Political observers in the Philippines are still fine-tuning their 'Duterte filters' to figure out what are real statements of policy versus off-the-cuff remarks versus brain freezes.

The need for this filter is particularly acute when it comes to the Duterte Administration's positions on the South China Sea disputes and relations with the US and China. Making projections based on a selective number of statements is always risky, with Duterte much more so. Duterte himself tells us we should ignore his tirade against the US ambassador and that the alliance is in strong shape. This is backed by Duterte's reaffirmation that his Administration will continue the Aquino Administration's military modernisation program, in which the US is the most important partner.

Secretary of State Kerry is the most senior foreign official to visit President Duterte and the US will provide the Philippines with $32 million to fight the Abu Sayyaf Group, a top priority of President Duterte. And, as in 2015, the Philippines this year will receive the lion's share of the US Building Maritime Capacity in Southeast Asia initiative.

Duterte himself has noted that the Philippines has only one ally. This fact, and the need for the Philippines to leverage foreign support for its internal and external security needs, means US-Philippine relations will likely not alter alarmingly once we look at the facts and filter Duterte's frothy political language.

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