MARY GRACE COSTA WRITES – The Philippines and the United States have enjoyed a decades-long marriage, but there’s trouble brewing in paradise.
Many people didn’t take Philippine President Rodrigo “Rody” Roa Duterte seriously when he said he was considering cutting ties with America and cozying up to Russia and China. But those same doubters were left dumbstruck last week when Duterte announced to a crowd in Beijing that it was “time to say goodbye” to the U.S.
On October 17, Duterte left Manila for Beijing, where he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping to talk South China Sea, economic alliances, and reinvigorated China-Philippines relations. This came as a bit of a surprise to many in the international community, as it was just over six months ago that the two countries were locked in an intense tug-o-war over fishing rights in South China Sea.
“Both in military, not maybe social, but economics also. America has lost,” Duterte said in his address in Beijing on October 20. He also voiced a plan to engage Putin and Russia in the near future, saying: “There are three of us against the world – China, Philippines, and Russia.”
Despite the announcement, his language remains a bit vague, and has Washington officials scratching their heads. U.S. State Department spokesperson John Kirby said, “We are going to be seeking an explanation of exactly what the president meant when he talked about separation from us. It’s not clear to us exactly what that means and all its ramifications.”
Some Filipino officials are also worried about what such a separation could mean for their country. Former Philippines Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario said, “The declared shift away from the U.S. to hastily embrace a neighbor that vehemently rejects international law is both incomprehensible and unwise.”
Dindo Manhit, president of a Filipino policy research group called STRATBASE, reinforced that sentiment, saying: “I find it baffling that you’re reaching out to your source of threat, to the risk to your security instead of strengthening [an] existing relationship.”
Indeed, most Filipinos are still wary of China, whom they view as an adversary trying to steal their territory. A recent survey confirms that most Philippine citizens would rather stick with the U.S., with whom the island nation has a long history of mostly friendly relations.
So what gives?
Duterte believes his country’s relationship with the U.S. has been lopsided. In an official ministerial statement entitled “America Has Failed Us,” Filipino Foreign Secretary Perfecto R. Yasay condemned America’s “carrot-and-stick” policy towards the Philippines and claimed that “breaking away from the shackling dependency of the Philippines to effectively address both internal and external security threats has become imperative in putting an end to [Philippines’] subservience to United States’ interests.”
Michael Sullivan, a Southeast Asia correspondent for NPR, suggests that Duterte’s claims of American snubs may not be completely unfounded. According to government data, the U.S. gave just around $162 million in foreign assistance to the Philippines in 2013, the year Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the island nation and left thousands of rural Filipino families devastated. That same year, neighboring Southeast Asian democratic nation, Indonesia, which has no previous colonial ties with America, received $207 million in aid. Sullivan suggests that this frustrates many Filipinos, saying: “If the Philippines is so important [to the United States]… then why don’t they see more of that money?”
Yet Duterte’s passionate defense of his controversial policies, which come at the cost of alienating powerful international allies, suggests that this break-up goes deeper than America’s stinginess.
Turn back to 2002, to Michael Meiring and the Evergreen Hotel. Meiring, a U.S. citizen, was the primary suspect in an ammonium nitrate bomb explosion in Davao, Philippines. Meiring was rushed to the hospital to receive treatment after the explosion, and Davao police planned to arrest him later. However, witnesses allege that American FBI agents whisked Meiring away to the U.S. before the arrest could happen. America then refused to extradite him.
A year later, another explosion destroyed parts of Davao Airport, and then another bombing occurred at Sasa Wharf a month afterward. Duterte, who was mayor at the time, became suspicious of Meiring and the FBI agents who spirited him away. In 2011, Duterte cited the bombings when he accused the U.S. of engaging in false flag operations in his city. He also accused the American government of harboring secret ties with terrorists in the area.
Earlier this year, Duterte slapped back at America’s criticism on his anti-drug campaign by saying that any innocent victims are just “collateral damage,” likening them to the innocents killed by American drones in the Middle East.
Taking these into consideration, it becomes somewhat easier to understand why Duterte might listen to America’s lecture on human rights and find something ironic, if not hypocritical, in the situation. Duterte doesn’t trust America, and relationships must be built on trust.