BEIJING — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Wednesday he wanted U.S. troops out of his country, perhaps in the next two years, underlining his intention to press ahead with a major realignment of his country’s foreign and security policies.
It is not the first time Duterte has made this kind of threat, but his two-year timetable for a U.S. military exit appeared designed to reinforce his break-the-mold message to Washington and neighbors in Asia, particularly powerhouse China.
So far, however, his administration has failed to follow through on previous pledges to remove a small contingent of U.S. counterterrorism troops from the southern island of Mindanao or to notify Washington of an end to military exercises.
The United States “has received no formal communication from the government of the Philippines expressing a desire to make specific changes to our relationship or alliance,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday at a news briefing in Washington. “The United States remains committed to our pursuit of shared objectives” in keeping with the “seven-decade alliance between our two countries,” he said.
Earnest said Duterte’s comments appear to be “rhetoric at this point,” although they do “contribute to some uncertainty.” He said there were no plans yet for President Obama to meet with Duterte at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Peru next month, but he did not rule it out.
The Philippines is one of the oldest U.S. allies in Asia and hosted permanent U.S. military bases until they were evicted in 1992. It is also an important Pentagon counterweight to China, whose expansion plans into the South China Sea have dismayed the Philippines and other nations.
“I want to be friends to China,” Duterte told an audience of business representatives in Tokyo, the Associated Press reported. “I do not need the arms. I do not want missiles established in my country. I do not need to have the airports to host the bombers.”
Duterte’s brash style and off-the-cuff remarks have confused and confounded many other countries, with his own cabinet often in the dark about what he will say next and forced to play damage control.
Last week in Beijing, Duterte announced his “separation” from the United States, only to later row back his comments and say he did not want to sever economic or military ties with Washington.
But this week he has gone on the attack again, threatening Tuesday to end a defense cooperation agreement with the United States that allowed U.S. forces regular access to Philippine military bases. On Wednesday, he was even more specific.
“I have declared that I will pursue an independent foreign policy,” he said, according to Reuters. “I want, maybe in the next two years, my country free of the presence of foreign military troops. I want them out.”
Cutting military ties with the United States entirely would be a giant step for Duterte. The Philippine military is deeply entwined with its U.S. counterpart and overwhelmingly uses U.S. equipment.
But he has the executive power to abrogate the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, a 10-year deal signed in 2014, which allowed the United States to deploy conventional forces in the Philippines for the first time in decades, rotating through five bases. The deal was heralded as a key element of Obama’s strategic rebalance to Asia.
He could also end annual joint military exercises with the United States and cancel plans to hold joint patrols in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
“These are dangerous signals to send to allies,” said Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing. “The question is, will his words be followed by actions?”
China, although delighted to have Duterte disparage the U.S. alliance system in Asia, “also recognizes that Duterte may be an unreliable partner and that an explicitly anti-U.S. alliance is not in China’s interests.”
But many experts say it would be wrong to write off Duterte’s comments as pure bluster, given his history of resentment toward the U.S. troop presence in his country.
“I may have ruffled the feelings of some, but that is how it is,” Duterte said, according to AP. “We will survive, without the assistance of America, maybe a lesser quality of life, but as I said, we will survive.”
But Duterte can even be confusing and contradictory during the course of the same day. On Wednesday, he also said he had only been in Beijing the week before to talk about economics, not arms or alliances, and said he would stand on Japan’s side in the South China Sea.
Japan does not have a claim in those waters, although it does have a separate dispute with China in the East China Sea.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had been hoping to play a mediating role between Duterte and Washington during this visit, but the Philippine president’s latest remarks show just how difficult that will be.
The Philippines is one of several nations locked in a maritime territorial dispute with China over the South China Sea.
After China took control of the Scarborough Shoal, an area of rich fishing grounds off the Philippine coast, in 2012, Manila took Beijing to an international tribunal in The Hague.
It won an important victory in July after the tribunal ruled that China’s expansive claims to the disputed waters have no legal basis.
But, to the frustration of other claimants, Duterte has since agreed not to raise the tribunal’s ruling in international meetings and instead start bilateral talks with China over the issue.
In return, he secured a Chinese pledge to step up investment and lending to the Philippines, especially for infrastructure. But it is far from clear that he has secured any concession in the maritime dispute.
David Nakamura and William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.