US Alliance Hangs In The Balance, Philippines Divided On Duterte

REUTERS/Erik De Castro

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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The bombastic Philippines president is a nightmare for U.S. relations with the Southeast Asian nation, but not all officials share his anti-American sentiments.

Despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s calls for the removal of U.S. troops from the Southern Philippines, the Department of National Defense said Wednesday that American soldiers will not be pulled out of Mindanao, reports the Manila Times.

Walking back on the president’s comments, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana stated during a defense budget appropriations meeting that the Philippines will maintain its agreements with the U.S.

The U.S. and the Philippines are bound together militarily by the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

“We will maintain our alliance with our traditional allies,” Lorenzana said, according to the Manila Bulletin.

Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff General Ricardo Visaya signaled support for Duterte’s call, while Lorenzana, his superior, argued that the Philippines needs the U.S. troops stationed in Mindanao.

“They (U.S. soldiers) are there because we don’t have enough capability to secure the area,” he said.

The roughly one hundred American troops in the Southern Philippines do not provide combat support; however, they do offer valuable intelligence services. The U.S. intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance system can take high-quality images even at night. The U.S. also operates a shadow drone system which observes Abu Sayyaf hideouts.

“It’s just right for us to be allied with the United States because they are still the dominant military force in this part of the Pacific,” said Lorenzana.

The defense secretary also discredited Duterte’s justification for the removal of U.S. troops, saying that U.S. troops are unlikely to be kidnapped by Islamic militants because they are armed soldiers, not civilians.

Since Duterte took office in June, he has been charting a new foreign policy agenda independent from that of the U.S.

“I am no American puppet. I am the president of a sovereign state, and we have long ceased to be a colony,” Duterte said during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Laos.

During the ASEAN Summit in Laos, Duterte called President Barack Obama a “son of a whore.” He also blamed the U.S. for unrest in the predominantly-Muslim Southern Philippines. After returning to the Philippines, he called for the removal of U.S. troops from the southern regions, stated that the Philippines will not conduct joint patrols with the U.S. in the South China Sea, and indicated that he hopes to purchase weapons from China and Russia.

“China-Philippine relations are at a turning point,” China’s Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin told a delegation from the Philippines Tuesday. Duterte is throwing a wrench in Obama’s pivot to Asia by pivoting towards China, and, for the most part, China is opening its arms to the Philippines. A rift in the American-led, alliance-based East Asian security structure would suit Chinese needs.

For the time being, Philippines defense officials still hold to the belief that the U.S. is the better choice. “The military cooperation between the Philippines and the United States is important because our neighboring countries that are also our friends are also allied with the United States,” said Lorenzana, indicating that other potential partners might not be true friends of the Philippines.

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