Duterte scolds the US for refusing to sell Philippines guns. Can that happen?

Despite his promise to stop swearing, the Filipino president continues to curse out the United States as the nation's ally objects to human rights abuses in President Rodrigo Duterte's war against drugs.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivers a speech at Philippines Economic Forum in Tokyo on Oct. 26. The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee says it will halt the sales of weapons to the Philippines because of its recent human rights abuses in its war against drugs.

In another outburst of insults toward the United States, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called the US officials who halted a planned sale of rifles to his country "fools" and "monkeys" on Wednesday.

The US State Department chose to stop the sale of 26,000 rifles to Philippines after US Sen. Ben Cardin (D) of Maryland said he would oppose it, according to senate aids, on the grounds of concern about human rights violations in Mr. Duterte’s months-long war on drugs.

Duterte, who has already spoken out against the US for criticizing the extra-judicial killings in his anti-narcotics campaign that has killed more than 2,300 people, is not backing down.

"Russia, they are inviting us. China also. China is open, anything you want, they sent me brochure saying we select there, we'll give you," he said. "But I am holding off because I was asking the military if they have any problem. Because if you have, if you want to stick to America, fine.... But, look closely and balance the situation, they are rude to us."

The incident is the latest in the string of troubles between the two countries that used to be old allies. In the past month, Duterte has warned of ending military exercises with the US and chose to warm up Philippines’ relations to China, potentially unraveling President Obama’s plan to "pivot to Asia." But the military relationship between the Philippines and the US run deep – and disentangling it may have a profound impact.

Duterte and some Philippine officials see it as an opportunity to be more independent from the United States, with potential to develop its own weapons industry or strike new ties with other countries. The Philippines was a US colony from 1898 to 1946, and continued hosting two US military bases after independence that were dismantled in the 1990s. Both countries still have a mutual defense treaty.

"Precisely developments like this prove President Duterte’s point, that we need to be independent," Philippines Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano told the Philippines Star. "Thus, we shouldn’t be aligned only to one country and their interest. I will not rule out geopolitics consideration disguised in human rights issues."

It’s a huge leap from just last year when the country was embroiled in a fight with China over the South China Sea and sought for closer alliance with the US to enforce its claims.

US is currently the single largest provider of arms to the Philippines and it has held more exercises and training in the past two years, according to Reuters. It is also the largest recipient of US funds in the Asia-Pacific region of the Foreign Military Financing program to purchase American-made weapons and equipment.

To switch from the US to local or foreign weapons may be a challenge because of costs and logistical issues as many Filipinos officers are trained in the United States.

"There will be some problems with configuration," Richard Javad Heydarian, a professor at De La Salle University in Manila and a former adviser to the Philippines House of Representatives told Reuters. "It takes years for the Philippines' army to re-orient itself with new technology."

Duterte may also have to convince the military, as the Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Ford previously reported, the Philippines military establishment is even more "pro-American and anti-Chinese."

"Duterte risks a huge backlash if he joins the China camp," Professor Heydarian told the Monitor. Even if Duterte calls off some joint maneuvers, "the fundamental military relationship between the US and the Philippines will remain robust," although "Duterte will be a very prickly ally."

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