Shifting Allegiances: Rodrigo Duterte and US-Philippine Relations

By Gabe Wacks and Jason Williams

As the United States begins its much-lauded “pivot to Asia”, all is not well in its regional bloc. The Philippines, a keystone in US foreign policy in south-eastern Asia, has recently engaged in a confusing political clash with the United States. President Duterte of the Philippines, known for his brash language and aggressive political posturing, made headlines when he used pejorative language to describe President Barack Obama[1]. This comes on the heels of a major international ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which has sent already strained Sino-Philippine relations to an all-time low.

Elected in 2016 on an anti-crime platform, President Duterte has launched a campaign of extrajudicial killings of criminals. This, coupled with his frequent outbursts against major Western symbols such as the EU and the Pope[2], has put him at odds with Washington. At the same time, relations with China, spearheaded by Vice-Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin have slowly begun to improve[3]. Many have proposed that this is a carefully crafted diplomatic strategy to shift the Philippines out of the American political orbit. While this may be an overstatement, if this is Duterte’s foreign relations strategy, it could lead to economic and military decline in the Philippines, and badly damage bilateral relations with the US.

Duterte made headlines when he reached out to China, interested in forging arms purchasing deals and trade alliances. Additionally, he declared that the annual US-Philippine war games would possibly be halted, saying that the 2016 games would be “the last one”[4]. From an international diplomacy perspective, this could be a Philippine attempt to draw in Chinese investors and military deals and offset US influence in the country. However, the US is the Philippine’s largest foreign investor and has a mutual defense treaty that protects the Philippines from Chinese military confrontation[5]. This is especially important since the Permanent Court of Arbitration recently ruled in favor of the Philippines in regards to a territorial dispute in the South China Sea[6], raising prospects of a potential military confrontation between the two countries as China rejected the ruling. With this recent quarrel between China and the Philippines,increased dependence on China could lead to the Philippines being forced to abandon its claims in the South China Sea, where abundant oil resources may be present.

While Chinese investors and military deals could make up for some lost ground, the US and its vast number of allies provide an economic bloc that the Philippines could lose access to if Duterte continues to antagonize Washington. Additionally, a Philippine transition to a Chinese ally could worry investors. Duterte’s anti-drug crusade has already driven the Peso to a 7-year low[7], and geopolitical uncertainties at this time could lead to a flight of capital from the Philippines. Duterte has also publicly “dared” investors to pull out their investments, and his brash personality could make an already difficult political transition from US influence devastating. Loss of guaranteed US military protection could further frighten investors, and the closure of US military bases has already been shown to damage local economies; when Subic Bay military base closed to first time, the local economy suffered[8], and since its reopening in 2015, a second closure (as well as the closure of all military bases in the country) could further exacerbate the Philippine’s economic problems.

Duterte’s decision to antagonize the US and reach out to China for sponsorship may badly damage the Philippines’s foreign policy and economy. By insulting the US government, Duterte has set himself up for serious consequences, as the Philippines may be forced out of its territorial claims in the South China Sea. By damaging his foreign image with extrajudicial killings and excessive insults, the Philippines may lose valuable allies and be forced into an alliance where it may become dependent on China. Duterte has not laid a case for the Philippines to become a regional power broker, playing the US and the Chinese off of each other; he has set the stage for the Philippines to alienate powerful patrons and suffer economic consequences. This could lead to China gaining economic and military power over the country, rather than empowering the Philippines.

Note: Article was written on Oct. 15, 2016

[1]  Murdoch, L. (2016, September 14). South China Sea: Is Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte charting a course away from US? Retrieved from

[2]  Pascaline, M. (2016, September 06). Duterte’s List Of Insults. Retrieved from

[3]  Huang, K. (2016, September 14). Just empty talk? Philippines’ Duterte is playing China off against US on arms purchases, analysts say. Retrieved from

[4]  Petty, B. M. (2016, September 28). Duterte declares upcoming Philippines-U.S. war games ‘the last one’ Retrieved from–business.html

[5]  Domonoske, C. (2016, September 26). Philippine President Says He’ll Open Trade Alliances With China, Russia. Retrieved from

[6]  Denyer, S., & Rauhala, E. (2016, July 12). Beijing’s claims to South China Sea rejected by international tribunal. Retrieved from

[7]  Vaishampayan, S. (2016, September 26). Philippine Peso Falls to 7-Year Low on Concerns About Duterte. Retrieved from

[8]  Politics, Pinatubo and the Pentagon: The Closure of Subic Bay – Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. (n.d.). Retrieved from