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.

THE BEST-LAID PLANS

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.

Instead, Duterte has essentially abandoned any gains from the PCA’s ruling and in effect buttressed Beijing’s complete rejection of the decision. In opening bilateral talks on Scarborough and other contested territory, in part at the urging of the Obama administration, Duterte essentially has acceded to China’s position. Yet Duterte is not acting in isolation in this instance. Washington’s own unwillingness to press any advantage from the arbitration panel’s decision has only reinforced perceptions in Asia, including in the Philippines, of U.S. indecisiveness and passivity in the face of Chinese assertiveness.

A FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE?

Some U.S. allies have criticized the Obama administration’s approach to the Philippines. Although Duterte rails against what he perceives as Washington’s heavy-handedness, criticism of his policies, and interference in domestic issues, a senior Japanese official told me that Washington simply doesn’t understand Duterte’s priorities.

“Duterte doesn’t care about foreign policy. For him, it is all about domestic policy,” the Japanese official asserted. That is why Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has tried to counter China’s growing influence over Duterte by leveraging its role as the Philippines’ largest export market and source of foreign investment. Although disturbed by Duterte’s decision to visit Beijing before Tokyo, senior Japanese officials have already held private talks with him, and last week Duterte visited Japan, where the Abe administration is expected to offer $48 million worth of loans. That may pale next to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s offer of $9 billion in aid, but Tokyo feels that the main goal is to understand what Duterte really wants.

That includes economic aid and infrastructure development support, but also assistance for some of Duterte’s pet projects, such as building drug rehabilitation centers. Duterte’s controversial and violent campaign against drug dealers has brought him international condemnation, but that has been a pillar of his policies since his time as mayor of his native Davao City (he served seven nonconsecutive terms from 1988 to 2016). “[The United States] needs to focus on Duterte’s needs, and make sure he knows [Washington is] sensitive to those,” the official explained. Right now, he asserts, the United States appears to want Manila to act as a hedge against China, despite evidence that the Obama administration sought to calm tensions between the two after the PCA’s ruling.

Certainly, Washington’s public criticisms of Duterte about his drug war, or about the outrageous comments he made in support of the 1989 rape and murder of an Australian missionary, played into his long-standing animosity toward the United States. But Duterte’s mercurial character, his wild, loose-cannon combination of insult and provocation, clashes with normal diplomatic modes of conduct. Given that Duterte has signaled his potential willingness to conduct joint patrols in the South China Sea with Japan, Tokyo’s approach may be working and could prove insightful for the next administration.

REPAIRING THE DAMAGE

There may be little that the Obama administration can do in its final months to repair relations with Duterte. As is his wont, after his inflammatory statements in Beijing, the Philippine president backed down somewhat, by stating, “It’s to the best interest of my country that we maintain that relationship” with the United States, at least on economics and trade. Nonetheless, it remains unclear just how far he might go in unraveling the bonds between Manila and Washington.

Still, even with the current tension, there is much that unites the two countries, above all their open, democratic political systems. The United States remains one of the top trading partners of the Philippines, ranking second to Japan and just above China. Moreover, decades of close military cooperation, particularly in training and equipping Philippine forces, have built bonds of trust between the armies of both nations. There is also rising anti-China sentiment in the Philippines. Opinion polling from 2015 showed that fully 91 percent of Filipinos were concerned about territorial disputes with China, the highest of any Asian nation surveyed.

Per the Philippines’ constitution, Duterte will serve a single six-year term, which means he will be in office for all of the next U.S. administration. Whoever wins the election in November, then, should make it a priority to begin reaching out as quickly as possible to Duterte and his trusted advisers, albeit quietly so as to try to tamp down any public outbursts. Washington should focus on the types of domestic development issues that animate Duterte, to help build a common set of interests. Should such overtures work, renewed defense cooperation, such as building up the Philippines’ maritime and air capabilities, could be a next step. Japan could also play a behind-the-scenes role in helping reset ties between Manila and Washington. If the relationship continues to worsen, Washington should avoid the temptation to threaten trade ties with Manila. Instead, it can reach out to influential sectors of Philippine society and urge them to stress the importance of ties with the United States.

The message that the next administration needs to send is that it has not “lost” in Asia and that its commitment to the U.S.-Philippine alliance embraces domestic as well as foreign goals. But ties with the Philippines must be embedded in a larger strategy to create a network of partners committed to maintaining stability in East Asia. Focusing on the Philippines’ best interests, as Duterte himself has noted, may be the key to weathering the unexpected turbulence rocking one of the United States’ oldest alliances.