Philippine president wanting US troops out: ‘Appeal to nationalism to gain popularity’

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. © Soe Zeya Tun
The new Philippine president, known for making undiplomatic remarks about the US, doesn’t want to depend on Washington for security as much as it did under his predecessor, says Joseph Cheng, a political analyst at Hong Kong City University.

President Rodrigo Duterte has had another episode of strong and offensive words for US President Barack Obama. On Monday, he said he wanted all American Special Forces out of the southern region of Mindanao, where they have been advising local troops battling terror groups. He blamed the US for inflaming Muslim insurgencies in the region. He also warned the Americans might become targets for Islamic State-linked Abu Sayyaf militant group as counter-insurgency operations intensify.

"These special forces, they have to go," Duterte said, as cited by Reuters. "I do not want a rift with America. But they have to go."

"Americans, they will really kill them, they will try to kidnap them to get a ransom," the president added.

RT: Do you agree with the Philippine president that the presence of US Special Forces can worsen the fight with local terror groups on the island?

Joseph Cheng: There is all the time a considerable sentiment within Filipino society which doesn’t want to see the stationing of US forces in the Philippines. So, President Duterte obviously is appealing to nationalism and to this position. It seems that he is trying to gain popularity and support through a popular nationalist stand. At the same time it seems like he doesn’t want to depend too much on the US for the country’s security in contrast to his predecessor. He probably wants to initiate negotiations with Beijing on the territorial dispute with the intention of improving economic ties between the two countries as well as perhaps seeking economic aid from Beijing.

RT: But how long will the US turn a blind eye to remarks like those recent ones? They’ve had bases in the Philippines for a long time and are not going to let that key part of Asia and their influence on it flitter away to China, are they?

JC: I think the Obama administration wants to avoid an open quarrel with his Filipino counterpart which will do only damage to the reputation of the administration. At the same time they certainly understand that in November there is the presidential election. And to a considerable extent the Obama administration is already a lame duck in terms of foreign policy issues.
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RT: Who is pushing this war of words?

JC: I think it is Manila. The new president certainly wants to establish his identity and his position in foreign policy in contrast with his predecessor and also in terms of this popular nationalist stand.

RT: Do you think President Duterte will tone down his rhetoric when a new US leader will take office in the White House early next year?

JC: In the Philippines, and probably throughout the East Asian region, people are concerned with the rising isolationism in the US as reflected by the fairly popular appeal of [Republican] candidate Donald Trump. There’s also a concern whether the US financial situation will allow the US to maintain a strong economic and military presence in the region.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.