Duterte's Defiance

His Threat to Upend Washington's Pivot to Asia

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte walks between meetings at the ASEAN Summit in Vientiane, Laos, September 6, 2016. Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters

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

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