On Wednesday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said that the Philippines would cancel all future military exercises with the U.S.
HONOLULU (Talk Media News) – U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Thursday that the U.S.-Philippines alliance is “ironclad,” even as new Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has spent his few months in office saying that he wants to chart a more independent foreign policy for his nation.
“As it has been for decades, our alliance with the Philippines is ironclad,” said Carter in larger remarks about the Asia Pacific while aboard the U.S.S. Carl Vinson, home ported in San Diego.
On Wednesday, Duterte said that the Philippines would cancel all future military exercises with the U.S., a statement Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay later walked back to just ending joint military patrols outside the Philippines’s 12-nautical mile territorial waters.
“I will establish new alliances for trade and commerce,” Duterte said in a statement, The Philippine Star reported. “And you are scheduled to hold war games again, which China does not want. I will serve notice to you now that this will be the last military exercise.”
Duterte’s comment came weeks after he demanded that U.S. special forces training Filipino troops against terrorist group Abu Sayyaf on the southern island of Mindanao leave. The U.S. said at the time that it received no formal request to evacuate troops from the island.
“It’s hard to tell how much of what Duterte says is political theater and how much are his deeply held beliefs. His public persona is clearly anti-American,” said Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in an interview earlier in the month.
“He is at the very least deeply skeptical of our U.S. treaty commitments. He has said repeatedly and does seem to believe that the U.S. will not defend the Philippines in the face of Chinese aggression in the way we would other allies, like Japan. Now, he is wildly out of step with the Philippine public on all of those points.”
According to Poling, polling of the Philippine public shows that “trust in America and support for the alliance are well over 70 or 80 percent, while support for China or views on China are starkly negative.”
Carter will meet with Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana later Thursday on the sidelines of a meeting of 10 Southeast Asian defense ministers in Hawaii, known as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
At that time Carter will look to clarify the Philippine position on join patrols, according to a senior U.S. defense official. The official said that the U.S. has heard different messages about the patrols from different people.
“The U.S. has strong security interests in the Philippines regardless of who’s president … It’s had its ups and downs and it’s survived,” the official said. “And, it’s going to to continue to survive based on what we think are U.S.-Philippine security interests.”
Duterte is known internationally for his fiery rhetoric. He’s called President Barack Obama and the Pope some version of “son of a bitch.” He launched into office on a strict law and order ticket and a pledge to rid the Philippines of drug trafficking. Since, some 3,000 people have been killed by police and vigilantes.
Poling said that while the alliance is about “more than if the two heads of state can get along…if these public outburst continue to color the narrative, then we could start seeing a slip in the broader support for the relationship.”
In January, the Philippine government gave the go ahead for the U.S. and the country to begin implementing a defense cooperation agreement that would involve U.S. support for refurbishing five military bases in preparation for increased rotations of U.S. forces there. The agreement, known as the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), is in its early planning stages, a different senior defense official said Thursday.
“It’s not just U.S. money pouring into these bases. Under the agreement, the U.S. can build facilities and preposition equipment at agreed locations on five Philippine bases, but the Philippine side has to pay for a lot of the stuff,” said Poling. “The Philippines has to connect it with roads and set up the power and harden the runway and do all of the things that are needed to actually make those locations function. So, if Duterte just decides to cut the purse strings, then EDCA effectively withers on the vine.”
The Philippines, a former U.S. colony, is of strategic importance to the U.S., located close to the Spratly Islands, where China has claimed sovereignty in the disputed South China Sea.
In July, an international tribunal in the Hague sided with the Philippines in a case challenging China’s ownership of wide swaths of the South China Sea. Since then, China has largely ignored the ruling and continues to reclaim and militarize rocks and reefs in the region.