BEIJING — He says he didn’t start the fight, but he is certainly not pulling any punches.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte launched another impatient broadside at Washington on Tuesday, threatening a bilateral defense deal that has expanded the U.S. military presence in his country.
The volatile Duterte last week announced his “separation” from the United States, although he subsequently backtracked to say he did not want to cut economic and military ties.
But on Tuesday he was at it again, saying he hated having foreign troops in the Philippines and telling the United States not to treat his country “like a dog with a leash,” the Reuters news agency reported.
He also questioned the 10-year Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed in 2014, which expanded military ties between the two nations and enabled 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 President Obama’s strategic rebalance to Asia.
“You have the EDCA — well forget it, if I stay here long enough,” he said. “I do not want to see any military man of any other nation except the Filipino. That’s the only thing I want.”
In the Philippines, a president is allowed only a single six-year term in office, and Duterte did not specify what he meant by staying long enough.
Richard Javad Heydarian, an assistant professor of political science at Manila’s De La Salle University, said Duterte might scale back military ties with the United States but is unlikely to end the partnership entirely.
“That would create a huge backlash in the security establishment and in the Philippine media, which is favorably disposed towards the United States,” he said. “The Philippine military is very entwined with the United States.”
But Heydarian said it would be wrong to write off Duterte’s remarks as pure bluster. The president has real resentment and antipathy toward the United States, as well as a track record of having acted on these feelings: As mayor of Davao, Duterte blocked the United States from using the city’s air base for drone flights against terrorist groups on Mindanao island and persuaded the city council to block joint U.S.-Philippine military exercises from taking place there in 2007.
If Duterte gains some concessions from China, Heydarian said, he could conceivably shift such exercises away from the South China Sea, cancel plans for joint patrols in the disputed waters, or even scale back the EDCA to withdraw permission for U.S. troops to rotate through the three military bases that face the South China Sea: Subic Bay, Oyster Bay and Clark.
On Monday, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, Daniel R. Russel, visited Manila in a bid to calm the situation and to get clarity about Duterte’s intentions.
Russel told reporters that he loved the Philippines and that the United States remained a trusted partner of the country. But he also made headlines by saying that Duterte’s controversial comments had provoked uncertainty and consternation around the world.
Those remarks seemed to get under Duterte’s notoriously thin skin.
On Tuesday, the Philippine president had appeared calm and composed as he read a statement before departing for a visit to Tokyo, describing Japan as a true friend of his country and a “preeminent and peerless” investor and development partner, Reuters reported.
But he soon lost his cool as he answered questions, holding up the front page of a Philippine newspaper carrying the headline, “Duterte sparking international distress — U.S.”
“You know, I did not start this fight,” he said.
Duterte went on to complain about issues ranging from the U.S. bombardment of Japanese-occupied Manila at the end of World War II to American consular officials once questioning his intentions when he applied for a visa to visit his girlfriend, Reuters reported.
China has been extremely unhappy about the heightened U.S. military presence in the Philippines and is likely to welcome Duterte’s unease with American troops.
But it is another headache for Obama and a setback for his goal of a strategic rebalance to Asia.
If U.S. troops eventually were forced out of the Philippines, it is unclear where else they could deploy to effectively monitor the South China Sea, experts said, with Singapore and Malaysia quite far south and Vietnam very unlikely to welcome them.
Rear Adm. Michael McDevitt, a senior fellow at the Center for Naval Analyses, said that losing access to Philippine bases would be a disappointment, particularly in light of China’s island-building in the South China Sea.
But he told the Nelson Report, a Washington newsletter, that much of the current commentary overlooked the fact that it was Vietnam — not the Philippines — that was the “key impediment to Chinese ambitions to control all the land features” in the disputed waters.
Vietnam “still occupies 20-odd features and seems to be quietly improving the resilience of its holdings,” he said.