Trump and Duterte

Against the Current, No. 191, November/December 2017

Alex de Jong

PHILIPPINES PRESIDENT DUTERTE presents himself as a nationalist who is especially opposed to the continuing strong influence of the former colonial power, the United States. After Barack Obama voiced pro-forma concern over human rights violations in the Philippines, Duterte called him a “son of a whore.”

Duterte referred to U.S. atrocities committed during its colonization of the Philippines, and said U.S. troops should leave the country. While campaigning he promised an “independent foreign policy.” The high point of this rhetoric came in October 2016 when Duterte declared “sep­ar­ation from the U.S.” and the intention to join the “ideological flow” of China and Russia.

But the ferocity of Duterte’s rhetoric has not been matched by acts. Joint U.S. and Philippine exercises continue, construction of facilities for use by the U.S. military continues, and Duterte expressed his thanks for U.S. support to the Philippine army in the fight for Marawi City.

And after Donald Trump praised Duterte for his “unbelievable job on the drug problem” in a phone call in May, signaling that the U.S. government would not object to the killings, Duterte’s anti-U.S. tirades lessened, although he still refused an invitation from the White House.

Duterte’s “nationalist” posing serves two ends. One is that he is trying to rebalance the Philippines’ relationship with the United States, and develop more friendly ties with China. Duterte signed multi-billion-dollar deals with the Chinese government that are bound to be immensely profitable for his allies.

Secondly, Duterte uses nationalist pretenses to deflect international critcism, accusing critics of hypocrisy and ignorance. The continuing weight of the pro-U.S. Philippine army, however, ensures that any real “separation” remains unlikely.

November-December 2017, ATC 191