Duterte’s Defiance His Threat to Upend Washington’s Pivot to Asia


In a year of global populism, no world leader has been more conspicuous than Rodrigo Duterte, the new Philippine president. But Duterte’s inflammatory rhetoric and reactionary policies have trickled into foreign and security policy matters, too, threatening to upend Washington’s pivot to Asia. Most recently, Duterte announced that he was suspending joint military patrols and exercises with the United States and would expel all U.S. military personnel from the islands in two years. Should Duterte carry through on all his threats, the result would be a dramatic reversal of fortune for the United States and a major shift in Asia’s balance of power. There may be no more pressing Asian issue for the next president than salvaging U.S.-Philippine relations before it is too late.


Such a potentially precipitous collapse of ties between formal treaty allies is rare. One might compare it with the effective end of the U.S.–New Zealand alliance over Auckland’s antinuclear policy in the 1980s or, of course, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact later that decade. Worse, the speed of Duterte’s deepening isolation from Washington has caught the administration of President Barack Obama off-guard. In September, Duterte stated, “I will maintain the military alliance” with the United States. But two weeks ago, in Beijing, he shocked observers by announcing a “separation” from Washington and claiming that the United States had “lost” to China and Russia. His personal relations with Obama are frayed, to say the least. Duterte has publicly called him a “son of a whore” and boycotted meetings with the U.S. president, who retaliated by canceling a one-on-one get-together with Duterte on the sidelines of an Asian leaders summit in Laos in September.

For the Obama administration, the clash with Duterte is the last thing it wanted in its final months. The cratering of ties comes just as the White House saw years of carefully laid plans for enhancing the U.S. position in Southeast Asia come nearly to fruition. In 2014, after intensive negotiations, Washington and Manila signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which is designed to upgrade defense cooperation between the two allies and give U.S. military forces access to a number of the Philippines’ bases.

The EDCA was intended to repair a strategic gap in Washington’s Asia posture. In the 1970s and 1980s, Beijing wrestled maritime territory away from Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea. The clashes turned violent and led to the deaths of dozens of Vietnamese sailors and soldiers. In later years, Southeast Asian nations limited their response to Chinese expansion or fortification of contested territory to diplomatic protests. Yet as China continued its policy of encroachment, the U.S. Air Force closed down Clark Air Base in 1991 as it scaled back its operation in the western Pacific with the end of the Cold War (and after the base was nearly destroyed by a volcanic eruption), and Manila kicked the U.S. Navy out of Subic Bay in 1992 after a spat over sovereignty. The abrupt departure of all U.S. forces from the Philippines left the United States’ military posture in Asia limited primarily to the northeast, in Japan and South Korea. This left the dynamic South China Sea a largely open field for the slow encroachment of China, which was consolidating its control over various reefs in the Spratly and Paracel Islands. Most recently, Beijing seized the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012, in part because of its rich fishing grounds.

The negotiations over military cooperation that the United States began with Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, would have allowed U.S. forces to use a limited number of Philippine bases on a rotational schedule, thereby returning an effectively permanent U.S. military presence to Southeast Asia. Combined with the Obama administration’s other moves, including basing U.S. Marines in Australia and expanding naval access in Singapore, the EDCA would have anchored a more robust policy of U.S. presence and engagement in the volatile South China Sea region.

Perhaps just as important, in July, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), located in The Hague, delivered a resounding victory to Manila by upholding all of its claims in a case brought by Aquino against Chinese claims in the Spratly Islands. The decision was hailed in many Asian capitals as the definitive statement from an international tribunal on the excessive nature of China’s actions and position on disputed maritime territory. Many expected some kind of coordinated diplomatic approach to pressure Beijing to moderate its claims and seek a more peaceful solution to the disputes.