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Guess what, Duterte: America doesn’t need you

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte used his recent trip to China to announce that his hosts had defeated America. But are his fellow Filipinos prepared for their nation to become a Chinese satellite?

Duterte has spent much of his short time in office scandalizing Filipinos and foreigners alike. The greatest shock in America came with his attack on the U.S.-Philippine relationship.

The previous president, Benigno Aquino, sought to build on the 1951 “mutual” defense treaty, which promised American protection for the Philippines. The two governments negotiated the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) two years ago, which provides America with base access and creates joint training missions.

Philippine officials were open about their desire to draw the U.S. closer as protection against China. Manila spends a paltry one percent of China’s outlays on the military; the navy’s ships are U.S. castoffs.

In 2012 Beijing took control of Scarborough Shoal and the surrounding waters. Manila discovered that it is difficult to take on a ruthless rising power with minimal military capability. The Philippines responded by suing Beijing under the Law of the Sea Treaty and won, but China dismissed the verdict.

Duterte first appeared ready to follow his predecessor’s more hard-line approach, but then said he was “reconfiguring” Manila’s foreign policy. Still, Philippine officials routinely walked back his often outrageous pronouncements.

For instance, Duterte said he would end bilateral military exercises because of Beijing’s opposition. He also promised to terminate joint Philippine-U.S. air and naval patrols of waters claimed by China. Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said Duterte’s statements “are not policy set in stone, not policy yet.”

Long-time confidante and Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay told an American audience that the two countries have “a special relationship” and their alliance is “a vital component of the Philippines’ independent foreign policy.” Indeed, he insisted, Manila would “maintain, respect, and preserve” the alliance and other agreements.

Duterte himself seemed to back away from his more radical positions when he said “I am ready to not break ties but we will open alliances with China and [Russia].” He explained he wanted to keep the “mutual” defense pact as well as U.S. forces “there in the China Sea. We don’t have armaments.”

In China, however, Duterte proclaimed his Chinese heritage and said: “in this venue, I announced my separation from the United States.” Indeed, he added: “Both in military, not maybe social, but economics also, America has lost.”

Even more bizarre, he said “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world — China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.”

In contrast, Chinese officials were restrained, mostly talking about pushing “China-Philippines relations back on a friendly footing.” Apparently no plan to challenge the world.

The back-pedaling by his aides began almost immediately. After all, personal, cultural, and economic relations with America run deep.

Then there’s the superpower security guarantee with essentially no obligations in return. Richard Javad Heydarian of De La Salle University argued that Duterte risked “a dangerous backlash among the Philippine security establishment.”

Nor has Duterte swayed the Philippine public. A recent poll found that most Filipinos view America favorably, much more so than China.

It is possible that Duterte’s outbursts are cynical, a ploy seeking negotiating leverage with the U.S. Whatever the case, Washington’s best response is to shrug its collective shoulders.

Duterte’s flirtation may not end well. Beijing is anything but selfless in dealing with other nations. Anyway, the Philippines is a democracy entitled to choose its own leaders and policies.

Washington should substitute more general cooperation for the misnamed “mutual” defense treaty and end aid, weapons transfers, and anti-Chinese military operations.

America doesn’t need the Philippines. A quarter century ago Washington lost its air and naval facilities in the Philippines and nothing untoward happened.

The U.S. now wants bases to help contain China. However, that objective is not worth a willingness to go to war with a nuclear power in its own backyard.

Those who should be constraining China are the interested parties, not distant America. Washington should take a broader defensive role, protecting against a hegemonic power attempting to control Eurasia rather than contesting who controls which piece of worthless rocks in surrounding waters.

Washington doesn’t need to “win” in the Philippines. Better that the American people win by dropping an expensive and risky commitment to go to war on behalf of a nation largely irrelevant to U.S. security.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.