After weeks of controversial comments about President Obama, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced today that his country would separate itself from the United States and turn toward China and possibly Russia instead, sparking puzzlement from U.S. officials.
Duterte criticized the U.S.'s economy, military and general “discourteous” behavior in a meeting today.
“Both in military, not maybe social, but economics also, America has lost,” he said to the crowd of over 200, later adding, “There are three of us against the world -- China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.”
"I will not go to America anymore. We will just be insulted there. So time to say goodbye my friend," he declared.
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. was “baffled” by Duterte's declaration: “It’s not clear what [the separation] means in all its ramifications.”
He later backtracked, explaining, “I wasn’t trying to say we were surprised by these comments.”
Kirby said Daniel Russel, a U.S. diplomat for East Asian and Pacific affairs, will move ahead with long-scheduled plans to travel to Manila this weekend and meet with government officials.
The State Department isn’t panicking yet, Kirby said, adding that the alliance between the U.S. and the Philippines is "some 70 years old [and] has weathered all kinds of storms.”
"We remain rock solid in our commitment in the mutual defense treaty that we have with the Philippines,” he said.
The White House has taken a similar stance. “We have not received any official requests from Filipino officials to alter any of our many issues where we bilaterally cooperate," White House spokesman Eric Schultz said today.
Duterte has been a subject of criticism in recent weeks for calling President Obama "son of a b----" and telling him to "go to hell." Most recently, he's the subject of criticisms about possible human rights violations in his war on drugs via extrajudicial killings of Filipino drug addicts and dealers. Last week, the International Crime Court in The Hague announced that it would be closely monitoring the Philippines and that it was considering launching a full investigation.
What Does This Mean for U.S. Foreign Policy?
A prominent marker of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy has been the “Asia Pivot” – a shift from a focus on Middle Eastern and European foreign policy to one on East Asian and Southeast Asian policy. The Philippines, particularly Manila, has been key in this strategy.
In the struggle over the South China Sea, Manila’s proximity has made it an ideal hub for U.S. military operations. The U.S. has constantly used it for this reason in times of conflict, as in the Vietnam War, and in 2013 when it asked to base drone operations there in air strikes against Syria (and was denied).
"No other country in the region is willing to allow the basing rights the administration spent years negotiating," according to Steve Ganyard, a former deputy assistant secretary of state and ABC News consultant.
Ganyard also highlights the critical implications the move could have for the next presidential administration.
"Clinton will likely use the Philippines as an impetus to quickly set out her own differentiated Asia-Pacific policy early in her term," he said. "It will be much tougher than Obama's and include confronting China's aggressive and illegal regional behavior."
For China, a New Brotherhood
China and the Philippines seem firmly pleased with the decision.
Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomed the Philippine leader today with a marching band and an elaborate ceremony, calling Duterte his “brother.”
In the business forum that was the focus of Duterte’s visit, China agreed to loan $9 billion to the Philippines, and 13 pacts were signed between the two nations, marking partnerships on maritime cooperation, financing, transport, drug-busting and more. Jinping has previously said that he admires Duterte's drug-fighting tactics.
In contrast, Jinping’s meetings with Obama are markedly less cordial. Obama was denied his usual red carpet arrival when Air Force One touched down in Beijing for the G20 Summit last month after Chinese and U.S. officials argued over which stairs the president would descend from. Obama ended up having to use a smaller door in the belly of Air Force One, while most other leaders arriving for the G20 Summit did not share the experience.
While there, White House press corps members were roped off and blocked from recording Obama’s arrival. The U.S. called the affair an accident and denied notions that it was a "snub," while the Chinese media declared that U.S. media had dramatized the interaction.
Despite subtle terseness and tension between the U.S. and China, U.S. officials “welcome a closer relationship between the Philippines and China,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said today.