Finally, Letting the Philippines Go

Exclusive: Official Washington is in a tizzy over Philippine President Duterte’s outreach to China and his estrangement from the U.S., but this realignment beats the alternative, a military showdown between the U.S. and China, writes Jonathan Marshall.

By Jonathan Marshall

As the crisis in U.S.-Philippines relations escalates, conventional wisdom meters in Washington are all pegged to the red “danger” zone. Smart American policymakers, however, should see in that crisis an opportunity for regional peace opened up by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s overtures to China.

The authoritarian but popular Duterte, who may be even more unhinged and narcissistic than Donald Trump, has garnered headlines by comparing himself to Adolf Hitler, boasting of his sexual conquests, and colorfully cursing both President Obama and Pope Francis. But he’s caused even greater heartburn in Washington by loudly announcing his preference for warmer relations with China.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (Photo credit:

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (Photo credit:

On his current state visit to China, Duterte said Wednesday that it was “time” for the Philippines “to say goodbye” to the United States as his country charts a “new course” in its foreign relations. That declaration was no fluke. A few weeks ago, he told an audience in Manila, “I will break up with America. I would rather go to Russia and to China.”

Putting muscle behind his rhetoric, Duterte has pledged to end joint military exercises with U.S. armed forces and to send home the hundreds of U.S. troops stationed in the Philippines. His vows sharply reverse bilateral agreements made this spring, before he took office, to let U.S. forces use five Philippines military bases and to start joint naval patrols aimed at deterring China’s aggressive expansion in the South China Sea.

Duterte’s rejection of traditional military ties with the United States has sent conventional foreign policy analysts into a tizzy. In the paradigm of the Cold War, they view every development in the Far East as a zero sum game, benefiting either China or the United States at the expense of the other power.

A Blow to Prestige

According to the Wall Street Journal, Duterte’s actions “have thrown Manila’s longstanding relationship with Washington into question, striking a blow to American prestige and potentially undercutting U.S.-led efforts to check China’s rising influence in the Asia-Pacific region.”

China's President Xi Jinping.

China’s President Xi Jinping.

Similarly, Andrew Shearer, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, warns that “If China succeeds in peeling the Philippines away from the United States, it will be a major win in Beijing’s long-term campaign to weaken U.S. alliances in the region. It will feed fears that the right mix of intimidation and inducements could influence other partners to distance themselves from Washington.”

Duterte’s anti-Washington stand reflects several influences. One is his nationalist grievance against America’s record of brutal colonial warfare in the Philippines starting in 1899. Duterte also hates American leaders (or anyone else) lecturing him about human rights, particularly regarding his support for death squads that have killed thousands of petty criminals and street children. Washington has threatened to withhold some economic aid if Manila continues this gruesome policy.

But Duterte is also playing a shrewd game with China. Beijing threw a self-righteous fit this July after the Philippines won an international arbitration ruling against China for encroaching on its traditional fishing grounds and undersea mineral rights.

Duterte was smart enough to realize that even with U.S. military backing, he could not afford to challenge China’s illegal incursions.

“What do you think will happen to my country if I choose to go to war?” he said. “We can only talk.”

Instead of pointlessly demanding capitulation, therefore, Duterte has opted to shower China with love and respect. He is appealing brilliantly to the psychology of proud Chinese leaders, who are happy to be magnanimous to the Philippines while sticking it to the United States.

Talk, Not Fight

A spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry welcomed Duterte’s commitment to resolving territorial disputes “through consultation and dialogue” and said, “Anyone who truly wishes for peace, stability, development and prosperity in the Asia Pacific” should welcome Duterte’s state visit. She was right.

Chinese President Xi Jinping greets President Barack Obama upon arrival for the G20 Summit at the Hangzhou International Expo Center in Hangzhou, China, Sept. 4, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Chinese President Xi Jinping greets President Barack Obama upon arrival for the G20 Summit at the Hangzhou International Expo Center in Hangzhou, China, Sept. 4, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Duterte is significantly enhancing U.S. national security by reducing the risks of starting a conflict with China in the South China Sea. In addition, by downgrading the U.S-Philippines military alliance, he lowers the risk that U.S. forces will be called upon to fight if the Philippines ever does engage in military skirmishes with China.

Duterte’s actions should prompt Americans to ask fundamental questions about the purpose of U.S. military alliances in the region. Does our alliance with the Philippines serve primarily to protect U.S. security, or to generously protect a vulnerable friend against Chinese aggression?

The former rationale is unconvincing: the Philippines were a strategic liability in World War II and are utterly irrelevant today to the defense of the American homeland, which faces no conceivable military threat short of nuclear war.

The United States does not need the Philippines to help protect commercial sea lanes, either. China, with its tremendous dependence on international trade and ocean shipping, has every reason to respect and defend freedom of the seas. China’s expansion in the South China Sea aims to counter U.S. military might and to access undersea resources rather than block commercial shipping.

The second rationale falls away if the Philippines becomes fast friends with China. If our aim is to protect our former colony against aggression, we should applaud the warming of its relations with Beijing.

Ringing China

One remaining rationale for the military alliance is — as China fears — to contain Beijing by ringing it with U.S. bases. The conventional wisdom, reflected in a 2015 report by the Council on Foreign Relations, brands China as “the most significant competitor to the United States for decades to come” and recommends “concertedly building up the capacities of U.S. allies and friends on China’s periphery; and improving the capability of U.S. military forces to effectively project power in the Asia-Pacific region.”

China and its neighbors

China and its neighbors

But proud, nationalistic, and ever-richer China will not stand much longer for the humiliation of second-class status in its own neighborhood. The U.S. policy of containment, enshrined if not formally acknowledged in the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia,” guarantees Chinese hostility and a growing threat of conflict with the United States.

A smarter policy would be to subvert that paradigm by welcoming Duterte’s overtures to China and encouraging other nations in the South China Sea to engage in bilateral or multilateral talks with Beijing.

In 1900, during the height of the brutal U.S. counterinsurgency campaign against Filipino rebels, the anti-imperialist Mark Twain said that instead of trying to conquer the local people, it should “be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way.” That remains a good rule of thumb everywhere, but especially in the Philippines today.

Jonathan Marshall is author or co-author of five books on international affairs, including The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War and the International Drug Traffic . Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews include Can Obama Lecture Xi on Human Rights?” “How Arms Sales Distort US Foreign Policy,” “Hiding the Indonesia Massacre Files,” and “Pakistan’s Ticking Nuclear Time Bomb.”


26 comments for “Finally, Letting the Philippines Go

  1. Erik Skjold
    October 22, 2016 at 21:14

    Great article, and also credit to the commenters for adding nuance and valuable background information. In these times where MSM is in a nosedive, objective reporting and a well informed audience is a recipe for success.

  2. Abe
    October 22, 2016 at 14:00

    “According to several leading Filipino intellectuals, the US has been using the Philippines for its aggressive imperialist ambitions in the region, consistently antagonizing and provoking China.

    “Duterte’s government is determined to move much closer to China and away from the West. It is very likely that the Philippines and China will be able to resolve all disagreements in the foreseeable future. That is, if the US will be out, kept permanently at bay.

    “To demonstrate its goodwill towards China, and to show its new independent course, Manila is also planning to cancel all 28 annual military exercises with the United States.

    “President Duterte knows perfectly well what is at stake. To mark his 100 days in office, he has given several fiery speeches, acknowledging that the West may try to remove him from the office, even kill him:

    “’You want to oust me? You want to use the CIA? Go ahead… Be my guest. I don’t give a shit! I’ll be ousted? Fine. (If so) it’s part of my destiny. Destiny carries so many things. If I die, that’s part of my destiny. Presidents get assassinated.’

    “They do. They often do get assassinated.

    “But recently, one after another, countries all over the world are joining the anti-imperialist coalition.”

    Will “They” Really Try to Kill President Duterte?
    By Andre Vltchek

  3. Andrew Nichols
    October 22, 2016 at 01:16

    Are the betting agencies opening with any odds on assassination, a coup or one of those new fangled South American things the “Constitutional Coup”(AKA Tegucicalpa Tango/Brazilian ballsup/ Paraguayan putsch). The Empire wont be tolerating this declaration of independence.

    • David G
      October 22, 2016 at 15:17

      I am looking for the first, inevitable NY Times article on the massive “corruption” of the Duterte administration … or, dare I say it? … “regime”.

  4. delia ruhe
    October 22, 2016 at 01:08

    I’ve been waiting to exhale ever since the Philippines and all those other little potential places for US military-bases started egging Washington on to “do something” about China’s grabbing up all those super-valuable little rocks and reefs in the SCS. I am breathing easy again.

    When Duterte uttered his first rational statement a couple days ago about quitting the US for China, a great wave of relief swept over me. I can only hope that the others will follow suit and start pursuing a little diplomacy as the solution to their problem. There is a lot China can do for those tiny nations, as they are all in his legitimate sphere of influence — and they could use some help developing their own interest in the natural resources in the seas around those rocks and reefs. But I am surprised that it’s just Duterte who has recognized that so far. Is diplomacy considered a huge risk over there — so risky that it takes a crazyman to plunge into it?

    Besides, Hillary won’t have much time to pursue her “Pacific Pivot,” as she will have her hands full trying to stir up a war with Russia. (Stupid, stupid woman!)

  5. Kiza
    October 22, 2016 at 00:54

    Small countries such as Philippines have to look carefully at what they are getting out of a deal. So what is the US offer to Philippines?

    Let us turn you against China, use your bases for harassing China and sell you armaments to oppose China. No economic development, no improved standard of living, we will just turn you into an Asian warrior nation for US interests and give you loans to buy US weapons.

    Naturally, the Chinese and Russian offer is totally opposite – economic development and investment, treatment as an equal.

    This offer was the same to Ukraine and to Philippines. But it is very interesting how different the reaction of the Ukrainian leadership and the Filipino leadership was to the same US offer. No wonder Asia is coming to the fore, it appears much less corruptible than Eastern Europe.

  6. Bill Bodden
    October 21, 2016 at 22:33

    Duterte backtracks on Philippines’ ‘separation’ with US: Philippines’ president announces severing of ties not in the best interest of his country after his return from China. –

  7. Charles
    October 21, 2016 at 19:14

    No matter that the US did terrible harm to the Philippines a century ago, or that the US propped up the Marcos dictatorship, these two countries currently have close ties of friendship. Duterte is a thug who is currently encouraging vigilantism and committing acts of violence.

    There is something sadly ironic about the applause for Duterte declaring that it is he, Beijing, and Moscow against the world. Those are three regimes characterized by authoritarianism and state violence against their own people.

    One can see the US with open eyes as a hegemon capable of great brutality without losing sight of the fact that Russia and China are hardly any more benevolent. Sorry, but I think that Mr. Marshall has lost perspective.

    • Zachary Smith
      October 21, 2016 at 22:41

      That “terrible harm” the US did 120 years ago hasn’t been forgotten. I looked up this fellow’s wiki, and found this:

      Rodrigo “Rody” Roa Duterte (born March 28, 1945), also known as Digong,[6] is a Filipino politician and jurist who is the 16th and current President of the Philippines.[7][8][9] He is the first Mindanaoan to hold the office, and the fourth of Visayan descent.[10]

      That he is the first Mindanaoan to hold the office of President is significant, for the South was where the US horror show was especially ugly.

      General Smith instructed Major Littleton Waller, commanding officer of a battalion of 315 US Marines assigned to bolster his forces in Samar, regarding the conduct of pacification:

      I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn; the more you kill and burn, the better it will please me… The interior of Samar must be made a howling wilderness…[21][22]
      —?Gen. Jacob H. Smith

      The order was, however, countermanded by Waller.

      As a consequence of this order, Smith became known as “Howling Wilderness Smith”.[23] He further ordered Waller to kill all persons who were capable of bearing arms and in actual hostilities against the United States forces. When queried by Waller regarding the age limit of these persons, Smith replied that the limit was ten years of age.

      I’m not entirely sure how a Major ‘countermands’ an order by a General. Perhaps by ignoring it as much as possible. Still, the fact remains that in the southern islands the slaughter was vast. Our army had a large sprinkling of the old Indian fighters of the Wild West – men who had done a lot of killing and who were quite ready to do more. The entire United States was racist to the core, and anything done to those little brown savages to bring them to civilization was OK for the majority of US citizens, despite the existence of a substantial ‘peace movement’. This has NOT been forgotten in the Philippines, and IMO explains Duterte’s astonishing popularity.

      … 91 percent of Filipinos trust the President.

      The pollster noted that “practically no one” distrusts Duterte as he only got a “small/no trust” rating of 0.02 percent.

      Given the past history of US governments in general and Obama/Hillary in particular, I sure wouldn’t sell Duterte a life insurance policy.

    • David G
      October 22, 2016 at 15:26

      It’s not about “benevolence” on anybody’s part. Closer partnership with China seems to offer the Philippines a constructive, mutually beneficial relationship—with real negotiations over any actual, concrete disputes respecting the South China Sea.

      The U.S. promises only its usual zero-sum rivalry, with the Philippines extracting a few crumbs as client, and an eternal, no-winner dispute over sovereignty over open sea.

  8. mark
    October 21, 2016 at 18:29

    Whats the bets for life expectancy?

  9. Bill Bodden
    October 21, 2016 at 17:28

    The authoritarian but popular Duterte, who may be even more unhinged and narcissistic than Donald Trump,

    but not our warmongering neocons and several politicians in high places.

  10. rosemerry
    October 21, 2016 at 17:16

    “Washington has threatened to withhold some economic aid if Manila continues this gruesome policy.”
    Funny, there is only help to Israel from the gentle and kind USA when Israel has one of its regular murderous sprees in Gaza or Lebanon.

    • Joe B
      October 21, 2016 at 21:25

      Yes, that is truly odd. I propose that we swap Israel and the Philippines to disorient the assorted racists, give all the aid to the Philippines and let Israel negotiate with China. I proposed a similar deal to Turkey and Greece to swap Cyprus and Israel, more carefully allocating swaps of others in between to make everyone happy, but it was taken amiss. Perhaps a UN program of incentivized nation-swaps would permit juggling for stability, especially where a very poor angry population gets a tract of McMansions complete with airbase from a downsizing US military empire.

  11. evelync
    October 21, 2016 at 14:14

    Thank you, Jonathan Marshall, for your wise and thoughtful article.

    Whew, I was grateful to Dick Lugar for working out the bag of loot deal to get Marcos out of the Phillipines decades ago. One fewer bloodbath for human history. I think he may be the only Republican senator I have found a reason to respect for his mature diplomacy and his respect for our soldiers and for the people of the Philippines. As well for the people here at home. Nice job Dick Luger.

    If only Hillary and Drumpf were that responsible and mature. But alas, they are both on a power trip that defies an honest view of the havoc they are apparently willing to wreak – Hillary’s addiction to violence abroad; Trump’s pandering to violence at home.

    I loved the title of your essay, Jonathan Marshall!!
    “Finally, Letting the Philippines Go”

    It is so crazy to me that “official Washington is in a tizzy” over this. More evidence that official Washington is delusional.

    Official Washington is far too comfortable wasting my tax dollars – and everyone one else’s tax dollars – on their bizarre illusions, believing they should be running the lives of people who live in other countries and wasting our precious resources not to mention risking World War III to do it.

    Washington illusions on foreign policy are further compounded by the contradiction that the State Dept is pushing trade deals down our throats that relinquish our sovereignty to multinational corporations to whom we give the authority to override our environmental and labor laws.

    So our sovereignty and super power authority is sacrosanct to the point of risking nuclear war but given over to o the multinational corporations who write our trade deals to override our laws. Can this be constitutional?

    This paradigm IMO – I’m not a legal scholar – violates our constitution and violates any fiduciary responsibility our legislators have to the people of this country to protect our way of life and our sustainability for future generations.

    The corporate gurus who write these trade deals seem indifferent to sustainability and instead focus on trying to protect themselves from government laws that for example shield children from the dangers of tobacco. Witness the lawsuits against South American countries by tobacco companies for daring to protect their children from the harm of tobacco. I think Peru? Is getting sued for restricting Phillip Morris? Atria? profits….

    So I for one am quite pleased to see the Philippine people out from under the “guidance” of the looney people in our State Dept.

    If only we could be so fortunate.

    • Joe B
      October 21, 2016 at 17:08

      The trade deals would be constitutional as treaties have the force of the Constitution, but these are being pushed semi-secretly through Congress by the executive, which has no such authority, except to negotiate treaties. Right or wrong, they are a scam, like most executive acts and most politics now. There is no public debate, no real congressional debate. Oligarchy all the way.

      • evelync
        October 21, 2016 at 17:42

        Thanks, Joe B. I’m disappointed in President Obama for his lack of public discussion of what’s in these deals. I’m also disappointed in Michelle Obama for standing by on he sidelines and not pushing for more transparency.

        It seems like even decent people, once they get to Washington are transmogrified into enablers for what is so destructive to the public good.

        On the side lines Michelle works for a better future for children, for healthy food, etc.

        But I don’t have much hope for Hillary. Her speeches reveal her lack of respect for us. And her pandering to the powers that be… surprise, surprise…..

        • Joe B
          October 21, 2016 at 20:57

          Yes, Washington seems to have corrosive social processes of groupthink and lobbying. If we sold it to Walt Disney, and had Congress meet and debate virtually, we might only find that internet giants were controlling debate. Perhaps Congress could meet in a rustic barn somewhere, camping nearby, with no lobbyists allowed, maximum $100 campaign donations, no party or other group affiliations or paybacks before or after terms, and 2-year term limits. Maybe a literacy requirement, and a minimum score on tests of policy knowledge. It is hard to imagine the same worthless oligarchy buffoons putting up with that merely to serve their country.

        • backwardsevolution
          October 22, 2016 at 03:10

          evelync – there is talk that President Obama is anxious to pass the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) AFTER the election, in the lame duck session. Trump has said he would stop it, Hillary flip-flopped from loving it to, as the election got closer, not loving it, so perhaps Obama will take it out of their hands and try to get it passed (of course, after the election is over). He sees the passing of this trade treaty as part of his legacy. In my opinion, if he tries to pass this, he WILL go down as the worst president ever.

          • evelync
            October 22, 2016 at 15:41

            I agree, backwardsevolution, that Obama is soooo wrong to hitch his star to the TPP.
            I’m still disappointed that President Obama, at the White House Correspondents Dinner dissed Bernie for trying to deal with the real problems we face like Citizens United.
            He mocked Hillary for being an uninspiring political figure and clodhopper heavy foot “trudging us up “hill” with her uninspiring campaign. – well I wasn’t sorry he said that but he failed to point out why that is the case – the reason she is uninspiring In her public speeches is that she goes on auto pilot when she starts lying to us about her policies. As we now know, from the leak of her speeches to Wall Street she becomes quite articulate and fluent when discussing the realpolitik agenda that she shares in her private speeches. Doesn’t Obama know that?

            But what pissed me off was how Barack dissed Bernie for being a “socialist” as though that was unrealistic politically.
            Had Obama considered what Noam Chomsky pointed out – that Bernie is not really a socialist but a “decent, honest New Deal democrat” and that the country is hungering for a shift back to the security, justice, sustainability of the New Deal, that Obama himself should recognize the validity of this shift.
            Unfortunately, It seems that Obama really buys into a neoliberal banking system, a neoliberal trade system.
            My husband recognized years before I did that Obama was breaking so many promises. And it’s been really disappointing to look back on:
            Guantanamo not closed
            No public option to health care
            Bailout of the banks instead of the homeowners who were defrauded by the bank scams
            Drone strikes
            Regime change in the ME.
            Secret trade deals like the TPP
            Appointing a pro Citizens United Judge Garland as Supreme Court Justice

            yes he did better on Cuba and Iran than anyone else did

            I read the Kite Flyer and that was my first intro to Sunni vs Shia.
            And based on that, I find our alliances with hard line regimes which seem to think that sectarian differences should be used to define “good guys” and “bad guys”
            That is sooooo wrong.
            Our endless wars are based on illusions. We are creating enemies from innocent people. Our leaders seem to think that they must prove themselves tough guys and justify their right to make life and death decisions for the whole world.
            I view that as their weakness not their strength.
            Obama showed strength to negotiate with Iran and to try to move this country towards reconciling decades of punishing embargoes against the Cuban people.

            But things do not look too good right now.

  12. Mahatma
    October 21, 2016 at 14:13

    “Duterte was smart enough to realize that even with U.S. military backing, he could not afford to challenge China’s illegal incursions.”

    Look, I have nothing against the website (if fact I like it very much) or the author – it find it galling that nowhere in the US can you find accurate information about the Philippine arbitration case. The entire process was bogus from day one. The Philippines did not notify China or seek its agreement to the proceeding and China wisely refused to participate. The US was influential in choosing the judges of the ad hoc tribunal and has fully paid the Philippines all its costs. The ruling itself was an obvious sham, going as far as to say – without the slightest credulity – that China with its 5000 year history has no historical claims in the South China Sea – and never has at any time in the past. Its’ call the South CHINA Sea for a reason yet the tribunal made this absurd ruling.

    The legality of the Chinese island building is unsettled at best the case against China is weak in many places.

    The islands are hardly “Chinese aggression” the work was not undertaken until China saw the “Pivot to Asia” as a serious threat to them. US bases were being beefed up, 60% of its vast navy moving to the South China Sea, including over a dozen nuclear submarines, B-1 long range nuclear capable bombers now in Australia, all that was well underway before China started building.

    Given the powerful and gathering threat ever more encirclement, huge incentives being offered Vietnam and other countries to gang up on China.

    It just is wrong to characterize China’s island building as illegal out of hand – the entire case was to give the US the same old phony story about “Rule of Law” to go after China.

    The US is after China and Russia big time – this will slow them but not stop them – US operatives and sycophants are at every level from Sargent on up in the Philippine military, powerful business interests depend on good relations with the US, with over 70 country interventions through coups invasions, or sanctions sense WWII why should the US stop now?

  13. Jonathan Marshall
    October 21, 2016 at 14:13

    Let those countries take it up with Duterte. I don’t think the United States needs to be the guarantor of Cambodia’s interests. Any fair reading of the article shows I’m not condoning China’s power grab in the South China Sea.

  14. Joe B
    October 21, 2016 at 13:31

    A very good article. China’s dependence on international trade makes it a guarantor of freedom of the seas, and Duterte’s pivot reduces risk of conflict. It is good that he rejects the foolish attempts of the US right wing to create another cold war of containment.

    Were the US governed sanely, no such bullying of Russia and China would have occurred, and we could have worked to reduce authoritarian enforcement in the Philippines. If anything proves the malicious imperial tendencies of unregulated capitalism, it is the fake enlightenment of the oligarchy-controlled US. We have as much to learn from China and Russia as they from us, but the US oligarchy learns nothing.

    It would be useful to have an update on the handling and prevention of Islamic insurgency in the Philippines and Indonesia, apparently a buried story.

    • October 21, 2016 at 23:50

      SUPER article; thanks Jonathan ray

  15. Tom Welsh
    October 21, 2016 at 12:51

    It really is ironic for Americans to lecture a Filipino leader about “death squads”. What was it – 250,000 or so Filipinos? – whom the USA brutally murdered in order to take over their country? What’s more, on the transparent pretence that they wre “not mature enough” to run their own affairs, when the commission that President McKinley sent to assess the matter reported back that there was less inefficiency and corruption in Manila than in Washington? (That report was quickly locked away in a drawer where it would never see the light of day).

    • Bill Bodden
      October 21, 2016 at 17:23

      What was it – 250,000 or so Filipinos?

      Two estimates I read some time ago suggested up to 600,000.

      Very likely, some people in one of our more unsavory agencies might have so thoughts about making that 600,001 in the not-too-distant future.

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