PHILIPPINE PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte has called for a rethinking of the decades-long relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines and made the entire region more nervous about the balance of power.
Despite Duterte's declaration made in front China's leaders about separating from the U.S., when he returned to the Philippines he began couching his position in more cautious terms.
He said he didn't really mean "separating," but just that the Philippines is moving in a new direction.
“In the severance of ties you cut the diplomatic relations. I cannot do that. It is in the best interest of my country that we maintain that relationship [with America],” explained Duterte upon landing in the Philippines. While the clarifying statement eased anxieties within the America-aligned Filipino security establishment and broader public, it simply reinforced growing concerns over the credibility of the Filipino leader’s strategic signaling.
If Duterte has proven anything, it’s that he will say whatever is needed to get what he wants. Duterte admitted as much last August, when he recounted to reporters how upset the U.S. Embassy became after he called Ambassador Philip Goldberg a “gay son of a bitch.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry then came to visit Duterte and Delfin Lorenzana, the Philippines secretary of national defense.
"Kerry came here,” Duterte said, “we had a meal, and he left me and Delfin $33 million. I said, ‘OK, maybe we should offend them more.”
His fawning over the Chinese garnered the Philippines millions of dollars to improve its infrastructure and allowed Filipino fishermen to return to their traditional fishing grounds in the Spratly islands, which is under dispute between the Philippines, China, Vietnam and Malaysia.
The U.S. and other western countries have expressed concern over the extrajudicial killings of alleged drug dealers in the Philippines.
His tirades against America also didn’t sit well with the broadly pro-American Filipino public.
According to Pew Research Center's last survey of global attitudes, no country in the world had a greater proportion of people who admired the United States than the Philippines.
In 2015, 92 percent of respondents in the Philippines said they had a favorable view of the United States; only 54 percent said they regarded China favorably. Filipinos' enthusiasm for the United States was considerably greater than attitudes in other traditional American allies in Asia, including Japan and South Korea. As one Manila-based newspaper put it in 2014, "Filipinos like the U.S. even more than the Americans do."
Almost every family in the Philippines has a relative in the United States. Even his comments about Filipinos in the U.S. not being genuine Filipinos was not meant as an insult - demeaning as it was and exposing his lack of knowledge of Filipino/American history. In his mind, it was a simply a statement of what he believed and again, he was pandering to his audience made up of Filipinos in China.
The history of U.S.-Philippines relations goes back a century when the Filipino freedom fighters had just rid the country of the Spaniards, their colonial masters for 300 years when America made a deal with Spain that turned the Philippines over to the U.S.
That betrayal resulted in a bloody conflict and several instances of mass killings of civilians by U.S. troops. When Duterte felt slighted and began an anti-American diatribe, he waved a picture of one of those killings of hundreds of Filipinos in a mass grave.
The bombing of Manila, which claimed over 100,000 to (in some estimates) over 200,000 deaths and the destruction of Manila. By comparison, the bombing of Dresden killed 25,000 and the deaths in Manila were more than those killed in the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima combined. Yet when it came to rebuilding those cities, the amount spent in Manila, the capitol of America's ally, was measly compared to rebuilding the cities of former enemies.
When the Marcos dictatorship was ruling the Philippines, U.S. support for the strongman kept him in power for too long before the People Power revolution overthrew the dictator.
Despite all that negative history, enough to make Filipinos hate the U.S., Filipinos have an affinity for U.S. culture, especially music, movies and basketball that is deeply ingrained in most Filipinos. English is still the most widely spoken language in the country even though Pilipino (based on Tagalog) is the national language.The Philippines has the longest waiting list for U.S. visas in the world - over 20 years. There is a steady stream of Filipinos coming and going to the U.S. to visit relatives, to study, to do business and for pleasure.
Despite Duterte's flaws - including the extra judicial killings of thousands of alleged drug dealers - Filipinos love the though-guy leadership of their President.
What Duterte - and Filipinos, in general - want from the U.S. is a little respect. There is a tendency of America's diplomats and business people - to patronize the Filipinos, or to lecture them what needs to be done, or just to take the Filipinos for granted.
The Philippines is one of America's oldest allies and yet their military gets second-hand equipment compared to the modern arms given to countries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Philippine Navy is made up of cast-off ships from the U.S. Coast Guard, hardly a threat to the Chinese destroyers anchored in the Spratly islands.
The schism between the Philippines and the U.S. can be repaired. A poll by the Social Weather Station shows that 76 percent of Filipinos have "much trust" in the U.S. Only 22 percent have "much trust" in China, largely because of its territorial expansion in the South China Sea.
Americans - and this includes some Filipino/Americans - just don't understand the depth of this resentment - admittedly originating from the Philippine leftists - whose beliefs are shared by Duterte. The American State Department just don't recognize the roots of the problem - American cultural and diplomatic heavy handedness and the U.S. belief that they are always the "good guys," when that view is not the perspective of America by most of the world's developing countries.
Indeed this deep well of resentment has built up over decades of the U.S. taking for granted and advantage of natural Filipino traits of warmth and tolerance towards their guests.