Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte cast fresh doubt on the future of U.S.-Philippine relations on Oct. 2, when he threatened to review and stop implementation of a major defense agreement with the United States. Finalized in January under Duterte’s predecessor, the U.S.-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) is a key piece of U.S. strategy in Southeast Asia, allowing the U.S. to rotate forces through and preposition materiel at five Philippine military bases. Duterte added that he would soon announce a new policy in connection with the country’s ties with the United States. These comments were made under an immediate context of heightened criticism of his drug war from U.S. officials and lawmakers.
The threat is just the latest in a series of similar remarks directed at the U.S.. In recent weeks, Duterte has called for U.S. special forces to leave the restive southern island of Mindanao, threatened to cancel joint naval drills in the South China Sea, and announced that joint military drills in 2017 may be the last such exercises for the two treaty allies during his term. Meanwhile, he’s also been advocating stronger ties — including defense ties — with Russia and, most notably, China. The Philippine Foreign Ministry, the Philippine military, and even Duterte himself have routinely downplayed his remarks, pledging to abide by the Philippines treaty obligations and agreements with the U.S. and effectively characterizing such statements as rhetorical warnings against U.S. meddling in Philippine affairs.
Nevertheless, Duterte's statements follow a certain political and strategic logic. At home, Duterte has concentrated his efforts on consolidating power, resisting blowback over human rights concerns and laying the groundwork for several contentious initiatives, including the introduction of a federalist system of governance. Populist bluster has fueled his political success for nearly three decades, and the fierce nationalism he has shown since taking office has helped to broaden his appeal among Philippine voters. At the same time, the president hopes to lessen his country's reliance on the military guarantees of the United States, in part by exploring the potential for more mutually beneficial ties with China.
In theory, the Philippines could pursue an independent foreign policy without scrapping the EDCA. But the United States' censure of Duterte's drug war likely altered the president's calculations. By threatening to terminate the deal, Duterte aims to pressure Washington into accepting his domestic agenda. He may also be intentionally introducing a degree of uncertainty to his administration's foreign policy in an effort to gain the flexibility needed to balance external powers like the United States, Russia and China off one another.
Still, unless the U.S. begins to make its military aid conditional on, say, human rights improvements, the benefits of the deal for the Philippines will continue to serve the Philippines’ strategic imperatives in the South China Sea. Moreover, the same nationalist impulses driving Duterte's anti-U.S. rhetoric are likely to come into play if Chinese expansion in the South China Sea resumes, particularly around Scarborough Shoal. And scrapping it outright would risk a backlash from the politically influential Philippine military.