Can the Philippines' Duterte Stay Friendly with America?

President Rodrigo Duterte presents a chart illustrating a drug trade network of high level drug syndicates in the Philippines. Wikimedia Commons/Presidential Communications Operation Office

Duterte has signaled his independence, for better or worse.

“I’m really a rude person. I’m enjoying my last time as a rude person,” the Philippines’ newly-minted president Rodrigo Duterte promised shortly after winning a bitterly contested elections. “When I become president, when I take my oath of office . . . there will be a metamorphosis.” His Kafkaesque promise, which raised hopes of a transformed rhetoric from the foul-mouthed leader, would soon be put to test.

Duterte relished a global diplomatic debut like none of his predecessors. It was his moment to shine. Barely three months into office, he was slated to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Vientiane, Laos to formally accept the regional grouping’s chairmanship, which rotates on an alphabetical basis. (Rather comically, some of Duterte’s staunch supporters falsely claimed that their leader was “elected” to the position because of his sheer popularity and will to power.)

On the sidelines of the summit, which was also attended by global leaders from America, China, Japan, Russia, India and the United Nations, the Duterte administration scheduled nine bilateral meetings. Without a question, the most anticipated one was with no less than U.S. president Barack Obama, who was on his ninth and final trip to Asia. 

Just weeks earlier, Duterte ruffled some feathers in Washington when he uttered unflattering remarks about the outgoing U.S. ambassador, Philip Goldberg. And amid Duterte’s “shock and awe” campaign against drugs, liberal hawks within the Washington also began to agitate for more explicit criticism of his human-rights record. Tensions were beginning to build in bilateral relations, but the Obama administration constantly emphasized the alliance’s durable amicability.

To be fair, the latest dust-up between Duterte and Obama is unlikely to undermine the sound fundamentals of bilateral relations. The Philippine leader has made it clear that he won’t scuttle existing bilateral agreement with America, particularly the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which is yet to be ratified by the Philippine Senate. Nonetheless, there are growing signs that the century-old alliance is heading into a “new normal,” wherein bilateral ties are strong but no longer as special and sacrosanct as before. Meanwhile, Duterte is planning his much-anticipated state visit to Beijing, a remarkable departure from his predecessors, most of whom, almost by tradition, chose Washington as their first diplomatic destination.

Boiling Room Diplomacy

When Obama was asked about his upcoming meeting with Duterte, he made it crystal clear that human-rights issues would be front and center. This may have ticked off his Filipino counterpart, who couldn’t help himself from uttering expletives when he was, shortly before attending the summit, asked about his scheduled meeting with the American leader. For the fiercely independent-minded Duterte, America was interfering in his country’s domestic affairs. Shortly after, the bilateral meeting was called off, when Obama questioned whether there could be any “productive” exchange with the controversial leader. Soon, presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump chimed in, turning a diplomatic incident into a domestic political issue.

The American president was just recovering from another embarrassing incident in China, where he was denied a red-carpet stairway upon his arrival, while watching American reporters manhandled by Chinese security officials on the tarmac. In fairness, the Philippine government, worried about a potential diplomatic meltdown, immediately released a statement of clarification, expressing the Philippine president’s sincere “regret” about his remarks. Duterte also clarified that he wasn’t directly insulting the American leader. The Obama administration, in turn, clarified that bilateral relations are still “rock solid” and there is no point for concern.