Since ascending to power last June, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has sought, with characteristic sound and fury, to signal the end of Manila’s century-old subservience to Washington. Shortly before his inauguration, the tough-talking president promised that he would “not be dependent on the United States.” When former U.S. President Barack Obama attacked Duterte’s human rights record, the Filipino leader told the Americans to “go to hell” and threatened to abrogate the 1951 U.S.–Filipino defense treaty. On multiple occasions, Duterte has cursed at top U.S. officials, including Obama.
Even as he has sparred with the United States, Duterte has worked to normalize the Philippines’ relations with China, which had frayed under his predecessor. He has pursued defense cooperation with Russia and praised President Vladimir Putin as his “favorite hero.” And during a high-profile visit to Beijing last October, Duterte—who has dubiously claimed to have Chinese ancestry—announced his “separation from the United States” while declaring his intention to join Beijing’s “ideological flow,” forming an alliance with China and Russia “against the world.”
Indeed, Duterte has made a series of significant concessions in order to improve relations with China. He has scaled back joint military exercises with the United States, barred U.S. warships from using Filipino bases to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea, and effectively soft-pedaled the Philippines’ South China Sea arbitration victory over China by not raising it in international fora.
Such behavior and rhetoric would appear to suggest a radical reconfiguration of the Philippines’ strategic thinking. Duterte is often seen from the outside as a charismatic strongman in the mold of Putin or Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—a quasi-dictator powerful enough to transform his country’s relations with the West. At the same time, however, the Philippines’ public statements on foreign policy have been erratic. Despite Duterte’s conflict-avoidance regarding the South China Sea, Filipino diplomats often raise the issue in regional organizations such as ASEAN, and
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