In the few months he has been in power in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has seemingly convulsed relations between his country and the United States, a longtime ally and former colonial ruler. He has repeatedly made vulgar comments about America's president and envoy in Manila and, without much warning, threatened to throw out U.S. Special Forces operating in the country and end annual exercises with the U.S. military.
Duterte went one provocative step further on a visit to China this week.
“In this venue I announce my separation from the United States," he declared in Beijing's Great Hall of the People. He would go on to suggest that “Americans are loud, sometimes rowdy,” and that their vocal chords are “not adjusted to civility" — a rather peculiar claim given Duterte's notoriously salty tongue.
As my colleague Emily Rauhala reports, Duterte's camaraderie with China has surprised many and compelled even his own officials to attempt to backtrack. The U.S. State Department has expressed puzzlement.
“We are going to be seeking an explanation of exactly what the president meant when he talked about separation from us,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said. “It’s not clear to us exactly what that means and all its ramifications.”
Rauhala brings up a crucial point about Philippine public opinion: "Many Filipinos are also perplexed. Though opinion polls suggest the president remains popular at home, his anti-U.S. rhetoric is at odds with public opinion. The vast majority of Filipinos hold a positive view of the United States; many are skeptical of China."
This is undeniably true. According to Pew Research Center's last survey of global attitudes, no country in the world had a greater proportion of people who admired the United States than the Philippines.
In 2015, 92 percent of respondents in the Philippines said they had a favorable view of the United States; only 54 percent said they regarded China favorably. Filipinos' enthusiasm for the United States was considerably greater than attitudes in other traditional American allies in Asia, including Japan and South Korea. As one Manila-based newspaper put it in 2014, "Filipinos like the U.S. even more than the Americans do."
That 92 percent figure becomes even more striking when you set it against Washington's allies in Europe.
In other words, Duterte's hostility toward Washington is hardly reflected in the broader attitudes of his public. Of course, there is and has always been a constituency in the country suspicious of American activities, first in the form of Washington's imperial rule and then its subsequent military presence. Duterte has championed that set of politics as part of a broader program of populism, raging against corruption and poverty and the elites and criminals who supposedly profit from the status quo.
Reports also suggest that his resentment is personal — connected even to an episode in his childhood when he was abused by an American Jesuit priest as a schoolchild.
“He is a very knee-jerk kind of politician who is extremely sensitive to criticisms and personalizes them,” Walden Bello, a Philippine academic and analyst, told the Financial Times this week. “L’état, c'est moi — that’s him.”
It'll be interesting to see what Pew's 2016 indicators in the wake of Duterte's rise reveal about any shift in sentiment toward the United States.