Philippine President to Obama: 'Go to Hell' as Asia Alliance Deteriorates

“No, no, no, he did not say that at all,” said Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay to reporters in Hanoi.

Yes, yes, yes, he did. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in fact said this in Vietnam on September 28, addressing the US: “You are scheduled to hold war games again which China does not want. I will serve notice to you now, this will be the last military exercise.”

You can understand Yasay’s attempt to smooth over what could end up the biggest blunder in his country’s post-colonial history. While Beijing threatens to dismember the Philippines, one island, rock, and shoal at a time, Duterte is trying to break the only thing that protects his country from Beijing, his military alliance with the United States. It would, of course, be difficult for the US to defend the Philippines if the Philippine and American militaries did not regularly exercise together.

Since his inauguration on June 30, Duterte has gone out of his way to antagonize his only protector. On Tuesday, he told President Obama “to go to hell.” In recent weeks he has called the American leader a “son of a whore” and used an uncomplimentary term in referring to the sexual orientation of Washington’s outgoing ambassador to Manila.

Duterte has also displayed pictures of what he called American atrocities from a hundred years ago. As observers say, there is no Philippine problem today that Duterte does not lay at America’s doorstep.

Many observers in Manila think their fiery leader is just trying to get a better deal from Washington, and virtually no one thinks he will actually terminate his country’s mutual defense pact, signed in 1951, with America.

Yet The Punisher, as he is known, is virulently anti-American, and there is a good chance he in fact feels the animosity he displays, now almost on a daily basis. If it were up to him, he would, as he threatened last week, expel every last American soldier, pilot, and sailor.

But it is not up to Duterte. He leads a country that is, on the whole, pro-American, especially now that the Chinese are threatening to seize Second Thomas Shoal and reinforce their grip on Scarborough Shoal, which it took in early 2012.

Duterte is, for the most part, alone in his virulent condemnation of the United States, at least among senior military officers and members of the country’s security establishment. And in any event, he has little room to maneuver. He can hurl insults, take Chinese aid, even end joint exercises with the US. 

He cannot, however, surrender Second Thomas or cede an inch of other Philippine territory. And if he gives the Chinese any part of his country, he will be removed from office by a crowd in the street of his capital. Citizens, congregating in a busy Manila intersection, got rid of another tough-guy president, Joseph Estrada, in the “EDSA 2” demonstration of 2001, for much less of an offense.

In 1991, during another bout of Philippine anti-Americanism, Manila ejected the US Navy from Subic Bay and the US Air Force from Clark field. By 1994, China seized Mischief Reef from Manila

Fortunately, there are few in Philippine policy circles who have forgotten this sequence of events.

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