Philippines Out of Orbit: America Losing Key Ally In Pacific?


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Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte
Photo Credit: 
By King Rodriguez - Presidential Communications Operation Office, Public Domain,

The United States may have just lost one of its key allies, the Philippines, and said island nation is likely losing its strongest protector. Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte boldly claimed at a meeting with Chinese and Filipino businessmen and officials that the Philippines was “separating” from the United States. Since then, other Filipino officials and Duterte himself have tried to walk the statements back, but the damage may already be done.

Duterte has been shockingly bombastic in relation to the United States. His profanity laced tirades have included moments where he has appeared to call Obama a “son of a whore”. Last week in China, Duterte seemed to unilaterally announce a three-way alliance: China, Russia, and Philippines, against the world.

The dramatic increase in tensions comes after years of growing closeness between the United States and the Philippines. The two countries have long endured a rather complicated relationship steeped in colonialization and intense geopolitics. From 1898 to 1946, the Philippines was essentially an American colony. After gaining full independence, the Philippines was home to a large American military base up until 1991.

In 1991, tensions between the United States and the Philippines became evident when the Filipino parliament narrowly rejected a deal that would have seen the United States continue its military presence on the island. Despite the split, the two countries remained close allies, with U.S. military forces frequently visiting the island nation, and conducting join exercises with Filipino military forces.

In recent years, with China growing more assertive in the South China Seas, it seemed that the Philippines and United States would only grow closer. There were even serious talks of reestablishing a permanent U.S. military presence on the island. The administration that preceded Duterte went as far as to invite the United States back.

Duterte's Contentious Relationship With America

When Duterte swept into power, he immediately set his sights on the United States. The tough former mayor of Davao City had built a notorious reputation for his war on drugs. Vigilante groups practically ruled Davao City, executing accused drug dealers with impunity. When Duterte ascended to the Presidency, he expanded his war nationally. Through the first few months of Duterte's rule thousands have been executed on the streets, their bodies frequently left on public display, with signs posted declaring their crimes.

Unsurprisingly, this has drawn international condemnation, especially from the United States. This criticism, combined with years of American dominance in the Philippines, appears to be the source of much of Duterte's resentment towards the United States.

Will China Benefit The Most?
Duterte has already announced that the Filipino military would wind down joint exercises with the United States. Recently, Duterte also announced that the Philippines would step away from international courts regarding the South China Seas. This move is especially surprising as the Philippines has so far held the upper hand in international legal proceedings, which have generally been ruling against China and its claims.

Outside of the courts, China wields far more economic clout and military might, and likely will be able to pressure the Philippines into accepting a less than favorable deal. China has made its intentions of dominating the South China Seas, and East Asia, clear, and now one of the country's with the strongest claims, the Philippines, may seen its position severely weakened.

Up until Duterte's incendiary remarks and actions, the United States was a strong buffer for the Philippines against China. Now, it appears that Duterte is intent on realigning with the so-called Middle Kingdom. Yes, the bombastic President has since been walking back his remarks, but his increasing volatility may force the United States to reexamine its relationship with the Philippines.

Whether Duterte really intended to “separate” from the United States, the long-standing alliance between both countries is likely going to cool, and perhaps even be put on hold until a more favorable Filipino administration comes into power.

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