By Allison Barnett
President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has been inconsistent in his relations with the US in recent weeks, first stating his intentions to pull away from the US, and then backtracking. During a state visit to China, Duterte said that “America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow,” and that “maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.”
In recent years, relations between China and the Philippines have soured due to disputes over the South China Sea. During his visit, Duterte and President Xi Jinping worked to repair this relationship. The leaders signed thirteen deals, including some on crime and drug prohibition, which Duterte famously emphasizes.
The Philippines, as a former US colony, has a long history of relations with America. Since Duterte took office, he has been pulling away from the US, calling President Obama a “son of a bitch” and saying the Philippines will not participate in joint military exercises planned for next year. The comments insulting President Obama came after Obama criticized Duterte’s policy toward drug crimes, which has led to thousands of extrajudicial killings.
It looked like the Philippines was moving away from the US, but Duterte recently clarified some of the comments, saying that he does not intend to completely sever ties with the US. “It is not severance of ties,” he said. “You say severance of ties, you cut the diplomatic relations. I cannot do that.”
“Why? It is in the best interest of my country that we maintain that relationship,” he added. “Why? Because there are many Filipinos in the United States. Well, Americans of Filipino ancestry. Why? The people of my country [are] not ready to accept. I said separation, what I was really saying was separation of a foreign policy.”
Besides not angering the US, Duterte’s other motivation may have been his own people. While Duterte is a popular leader, China is not popular among Filipinos. A recent opinion poll taken by Social Weather Stations, a Filipino polling organization, has shown that 76% of Filipinos had “much trust” in the US, while only 22% of them had “much trust” in China, as of Sept. 2016. No one knows where Duterte will take foreign policy, but it could have big consequences in Asia and beyond.