How significant is Rodrigo Duterte's scaling back of US military cooperation?

President Duterte's pivot away from the US may not be as dramatic as his words, though perhaps less than ideal for the US military.

Aaron Favila/AP
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivers his speech during departure ceremonies at Manila's International Airport, Philippines on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. Mr. Duterte has reduced the number of US military drills and will exclude mock assaults.

Rodrigo Duterte is letting the US military stick around, for now.

The Philippine president won’t throw away a 2014 defense accord under which five Philippine bases play temporary host to American servicemen, warships, and planes, said Philippine defense secretary Delfin Lorezana on Wednesday. But joint military exercises will be pared down, while assault drills and certain naval exercises, such as amphibious beach landings and boat raids, will be discontinued.

The decision, said Mr. Lorezana, came after security officials explained the benefits of the annual exercises.

"We presented to him the long years of bilateral relationship," he told the Associated Press. "The Armed Forces of the Philippines enumerated the benefits obtained from these exercises."

It marks at least a partial scaling back of Mr. Duterte’s earlier declaration that he might shut down joint exercises and order American troops to withdraw from the country within two years, saying that "it's time to say goodbye" to the United States and align more with China. But after an election that will place Donald Trump in the White House, which could bring significant shifts in US foreign policy, the future of relations between the two countries remains in the balance.

Duterte's "pivot" away from the US comes at the tail end of President Obama's own pivot toward Asia, as The Christian Science Monitor's Peter Ford reported in October:

His threats to curb US military activities in the Philippines, if he followed through on them, “would make it harder for the US to maintain a military position in Asia as a counterbalance to China,” says Michael Swaine, an expert on regional security issues at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

More broadly, he worries, other countries in South East Asia might start drawing some conclusions. “If it is seen as beneficial to the Philippines to be close to Beijing, that would be an indication of the decline of US influence in Asia,” Dr. Swaine suggests. “That would undermine the whole rationale behind the rebalance to Asia,” which is to boost US authority.

On Wednesday, Duterte offered "warm congratulations" to Mr. Trump for his electoral victory, according to Reuters. In a statement, Philippine communications secretary Martin Andanar said Duterte "looks forward to working with the incoming administration for enhanced Philippines-US relations anchored on mutual respect, mutual benefit and shared commitment to democratic ideals and the rule of law."

Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, which has seen several thousand people killed by police and vigilantes, has been a sticking point between his government and the US. The State Department’s public expressions of concern over reports of extrajudicial killings in that campaign have prompted profane outbursts from the Philippine president, and threats to eject the US ambassador and withdraw from the United Nations.  

Lorezana said that Trump’s electoral victory would bring about little in the way of major change in the treaty alliance with the US. 

"Through the years, whoever wins, Democrat or Republican, the US interest in the Asia-Pacific region has remained the same," he told the AP. "We do not see any change with Trump's win."

"It has been a longstanding friendship that some misunderstanding and irritants along the way cannot alter in a grave way," he added.

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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