Duterte wants US special forces out: Are US-Philippines ties unraveling?

Recent rockiness between President Rodrigo Duterte and President Obama has led to questions about the stability of the alliance between the United States and its key ally in southeast Asia.

Dita Alangkara/AP
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte steps out of his limousine upon arrival at Merdeka Palace to meet Indonesian counterpart Joko Widodo in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Friday.

Between rude comments, violent drug crackdowns, and a slew of anti-US rhetoric, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been keeping the United States on its toes since his election in May.

On Monday, Mr. Duterte called for US special forces to leave the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, where the US military has maintained a presence since 2002. The demand is the latest move by the president to raise questions about the stability of the Philippine-US relationship uncertain.

Duterte, while highly popular in his own country, has been a controversial figure abroad. As The Christian Science Monitor previously reported, Duterte received a huge electoral mandate to crack down on the drug trade in the country, which has resulted in a massive decrease in drug trafficking. This decrease, however, came at the price of more than 2,000 lives, including a large number of extrajudicial killings. Despite the brutality of his anti-drug policies, Duterte remains extremely popular through his image as a "strongman" leader willing to do whatever it takes to bring security to the country.

Part of Duterte's persona is his proclivity for inflammatory, off-the-cuff remarks in the heat of the moment that he often later contradicts. But his unpredictability as a leader means that it is hard to know when comments like this are meant to be taken seriously. Last week, Duterte expressed regret for calling President Obama a "son of a whore." The offensive remark may have been partially responsible for the cancellation of a meeting between the two leaders in Laos. 

Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, tells theMonitor that the insult, by itself, would not be enough to substantially damage relations between the two countries.

"I think the [Obama] administration is looking at Duterte kind of a wild card in some respects," says Manning. "One minute he's threatening to go out on a jet ski and confront the Chinese navy, and the next minute, he's talking about negotiating with them."

Before Duterte's election, the US-Philippine relationship had been strengthening for years, according to Bloomberg.

The US special forces troops were initially deployed in Mindanao as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, the global US initiative to fight terrorism, according to Reuters. Their main objective in Mindanao is to assist Philippine forces in fighting Abu Sayyaf, a militant group with ties to the self-declared Islamic State.

Since taking office, Duterte has ordered the Filipino military to focus on Abu Sayyaf in particular following a spate of kidnappings involving both Filipinos and foreign nationals.

In a speech on Monday, the Duterte said that the US troops would only complicate the fight against Abu Sayyaf.

"The US Special Forces, they have to go. They have to go in Mindanao," said Duterte, according to United Press International (UPI). "If they [terrorists] see an American, they would kill him. They would demand ransom, then kill him."

There is more than a little nationalistic rhetoric in the demand that American forces leave the region, playing on the increasingly popular notion in the Philippines that Filipinos should fight their own battles without depending on outside forces like the US, says Dinesh Sharma, an associate research professor at the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at Binghamton University in New York. Professor Sharma calls the speech more "political theatre" and "flexing muscles" typical of the inflammatory president's style.

"Mr. Duterte has also criticized the [United Nations] and threatened to leave the UN due to human rights issues in the drug war that he has led," even though he is unlikely to follow through with it, Sharma writes in an email to the Monitor.

"Mr. Duterte is given to forceful, blunt language," he adds.

But Manning says there may be another layer in the demand that points to dissatisfaction with how the US has been handling disputes in the region. "I think there's an element of frustration that Duterte's expressing because they've been pushing for more explicit US guarantees regarding Scarborough Shoal that the Chinese might be about to start dredging and building facilities on, and the US has been unwilling to go that far in terms of the alliance," he says.

Scarborough Shoal is a lagoon formerly under Philippine control that was seized by the Chinese government in 2012. Beijing apparently wants to create an artificial island on the lagoon that would eventually become a military base, as it has done before with other locations in the South China Sea. The prospect of a Chinese military base on Scarborough Shoal has made many Filipinos nervous.

Many in the Philippines say that the US is not giving them enough support against China, especially when compared to the support the US has expressed for Japan in similar disputes. When the Chinese challenged Japan's claim to various islands in the region last year, Obama explicitly confirmed that the US-Japan security pact applied to those disputed islands as well, according to the BBC.

But the Philippines have received no such guarantee.

Another possible theory: The noise Duterte is making over US special forces may distract from the growing US military presence elsewhere. In March, Washington signed a new agreement with Manila to station American troops at five different bases in the Philippines. The move is seen as a counter to Chinese growing presences on nearby islands.

"I suspect that it will ramp up slowly," Jan van Tol, a retired U.S. Navy captain and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington told the Military Times. "A suddenly much larger U.S. presence, even if just a rotational presence, that can be seen, certainty in Beijing, that this is a ratcheting up of a U.S.-Chinese competition in the South China Sea."

The Philippines' proximity to China makes their territory a tempting source of various important resources for Beijing. Many nations in Southeast Asia have access to oil, gas, and especially fishing waters that the Chinese want, says Manning. With some many mouths to feed, China is suffering from the effects of overfishing in its own territorial waters and has increasingly claimed large swaths of the Pacific on the grounds that they were historic Chinese fishing grounds. This has left the waters' original claimants, like the Philippines, high and dry.

"In southeast Asia, they're looking for kind of Goldilocks policy," says Manning. "They want the US there, they want a military security presence, but they don't want confrontation with China, so we need to have it just right."

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