On Tuesday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte abruptly demanded that American military advisors on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao “have to go.” His stated concern was that the presence of American troops on Mindanao antagonized local Muslims and that the troops could become targets of Abu Sayyaf, an extremist Islamic group, for kidnapping and ransom.
The American military advisors were once part of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines operating under the authorities of Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines, headquartered at an airbase near Zamboanga. The task force had been deployed there for a decade as part of a program to train and support elements of the Philippine military in its efforts to combat Islamic militants throughout the region. Last year, that program was wound down and most of the American troops left. But a small detachment of military advisors remained behind.
Precisely why Duterte chose to make his remarks is unclear. They might have been intended to strengthen his hand in peace talks that he reopened with the Philippines’ largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), in August. Those talks had been stalled for over a year after a botched anti-terror raid against Islamic militants, including the MILF, resulted in the deaths of 44 Philippine police commandos. The raid derailed his predecessor’s attempt to fulfill an accord reached in 2014 under which the rebels agreed to lay down their arms in return for the passage of a law turning a large part of Mindanao into an autonomous region. How successful Duterte’s peace talks will be remains to be seen. In early September, Islamic militants bombed a night market in Davao City, where Duterte was once mayor. The blast killed 14 people and wounded 70 more.
Back in Manila, Philippine Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay, Jr. downplayed the impact of Duterte’s remarks. According to Yasay, the larger defense relationship between the Philippines and the United States remained “rock solid.” The removal of a “token” number of American military advisors from Mindanao would not affect that relationship or the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that the two countries signed in 2014.
But Duterte’s remarks come at an awkward time in relations between the Philippines and the United States. Only a week ago, at the ASEAN summit in Laos, a meeting between Duterte and President Barack Obama was cancelled after Duterte chided Obama for his criticism of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign in the Philippines. While the two men eventually met, the incident amplified doubts over how Duterte’s administration would work with Washington.
More broadly, Duterte’s remarks reflected the deep ambivalence many Filipinos on the political left feel about the United States. They would prefer it if the Philippines distanced itself from its one-time colonial ruler. Indeed, Duterte already put a halt to the joint Philippine-American naval patrols in the South China Sea. And, recently, he stated that he would favor buying weapons from China and Russia, rather than the United States.
Unfortunately, the Philippines needs the United States, at least until the Philippine armed forces can build up a credible external deterrent. The last time Manila ordered American forces to leave the Philippines was in the early 1990s. Soon thereafter, China took advantage of the weakened alliance to seize Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef. Today China has not only fortified the reef, but also reclaimed enough land there to build an airfield on it. Duterte’s remarks give China another opportunity. Duterte may believe he can reach an accommodation with China without the United States. But that accommodation will likely be on Chinese terms.