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As joint military exercises begin, Philippine president rages against US

The Philippines president's threat to 'break up' with the United States may be empty rhetoric, but his war on drugs has deepened a rift in the two countries' relations. 

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    Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte gestures as he delivers a speech to the members of the Philippine Army during a visit at the army headquarters in Taguig city, metro Manila, Philippines on Tuesday.
    Romeo Ranoco/Reuters
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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is no stranger to strong language.

The outspoken former mayor, who became president in June, has found popular support in his straight-talking, politically incorrect strongman image. He has made no secret of his frustration with President Obama's criticism of his trademark fight against drugs, which is estimated to have killed about 3,000 suspected drug dealers and users, and has used strong language  on multiple occasions against the Philippine's most powerful ally.

But comments he delivered in a speech on Tuesday included some of his most explicit anti-US rhetoric yet, indicative of the increasingly tense relations between the two allies. The remarks come as US and Filipino forces are cooperating in amphibious military drills in the country. Mr. Duterte has said that the drills will be the last during his presidency, though he has not yet made any moves to support that rhetoric, according to US officials. 

The US has been vocal in objecting to Duterte's violent crackdown on drug trafficking in the Philippines. Concerns about extrajudicial killings in the region and probable human rights abuses by Duterte supporters have earned the president many enemies on the international stage. 

During a series of speeches on Tuesday, Duterte responded to the criticism of his war on drugs, and said that the US had refused to sell weapons to the Philippines, but said Russia and China were eager to supply them, instead.

"Instead of helping us, the first to criticize is this State Department, so you can go to hell, Mr. Obama, you can go to hell," he said, adding that objectors in the European Union "better choose purgatory, hell is filled up." 

Anni Piiparinen, the assistant director of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council, tells The Christian Science Monitor that the derogatory statements were likely off-the cuff attacks that project an image of strength against those who accuse his administration of human rights abuses. 

"These attacks against former colonizers also play to the very strong sense of nationalism among his supporters," she tells the Monitor via email. Yet some of Duterte's recent warnings about its ties with the US, its former colonizer and a primary ally since then, were particularly explicit. 

"Eventually I might, in my time, I will break up with America," Duterte said in another speech on Tuesday. "I would rather go to Russia and to China."

The cornerstone of cooperation between the US and Philippines in recent years is the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which was signed in 2014. Increasing ties with China has threatened to undermine the original intent of the agreement, however, which gave the US military more access to Philippine bases, although it cannot build its own there. But if the Philippines were to strengthened its own ties to China, that would threaten the Obama administration's "pivot to Asia," an attempt to expand the US footprint in Southeast Asia as a bulwark against expanding Chinese influence, says Ms. Piiparinen. 

Although many Filipinos are concerned about China's actions in the South China Sea, Chinese encroachment into Philippine waters has hurt relations with the US as well, particularly in the case of Scarborough Shoal, a lagoon formerly under the Philippines control that was seized by the Chinese government in 2012. 

"[Duterte's] preference for strengthened cooperation with Russia and China seems rather like a bargaining chip that the president is using to pit one superpower against the other in the hopes of striking better deals or negotiating positions with the US, [rather] than a real shift in foreign policy," says Piiparinen. 

However, she does point out that there does seem to be evidence of increased cooperation between the Philippines and China, such as Duterte's planned visit to Beijing with a business delegation next month.

"At this point I would interpret this as little more than harsh rhetoric and a bargaining chip. However, Duterte’s presidency so far has been a wild card, and it is very difficult to predict what he will do next," says Piiparinen. "While the US-Philippines alliance is very unlikely to fall apart as it stands now, in light of the president’s heated, and oftentimes profane rhetoric and unpredictable actions, the US might begin to seek stronger alliances elsewhere in the region."

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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