Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he’s considering buying weapons from Russia and China while also ending joint patrols with U.S. forces in the South China Sea.
In a televised speech Tuesday before military officers in Manila, Duterte said that two countries -- which he didn’t identify -- had agreed to give the Philippines a 25-year soft loan to buy military equipment. Later, he said that Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and “technical people” in the armed forces would visit China and Russia “and see what’s best.”
While Duterte said he didn’t want to cut the “umbilical cord” with his allies, the remarks were the latest to signal a shift away from the Philippine-U.S. defense treaty in place since 1951. Since engaging in a public spat with U.S. President Barack Obama last week, Duterte has denounced American military killings during the early days of colonial rule and called for U.S. forces to leave the southern island of Mindanao.
“Duterte seems to be putting into action his latest remarks about trying to implement an independent foreign policy,” said Eduardo Tadem, a lecturer of Asian Studies at the University of the Philippines. “The problem is what’s the quid pro quo? What will the Chinese especially get in exchange?"
‘I don’t need jets’
President Rodrigo Duterte holds up a photo, citing accounts of US troops who have killed Muslims during the US occupation of the Philippines in the early-1900s during a speech at the oath-taking of newly appointed government officials, at Malacanang palace in Manila on Sept. 12.
On Tuesday, Duterte said the Philippines needs propeller-driven planes that it can use against insurgents and fight terrorists in Mindanao. He said he wanted to buy arms “where they are cheap and where there are no strings attached and it is transparent.”
“I don’t need jets, F-16 -- that’s of no use to us,” Duterte said. “We don’t intend to fight any country.”
Since 1950, the U.S. has accounted for about 75 percent of the Philippines’ arms imports, according to a database from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Russia and China haven’t supplied any weapons in that time, it showed.
The U.S. would probably move diplomatically to prevent the Philippines from procuring a major defense system from China, according to Jon Grevatt, an defense industry analyst at IHS Jane’s in Bangkok. The Southeast Asian nation’s defense procurement budget climbed to 25 billion pesos ($524 million) this year, up more than 60 percent from 2015, according to IHS Janes data.
‘Rub their hands with glee’
“To suggest that they would move away from the U.S. -- their long traditional partner -- is quite a move if it actually happens," Grevatt said. “China and Russia would rub their hands with glee for any opportunity to enter the market."
Duterte also said the Philippines won’t participate in expeditions patrolling South China Sea to avoid being involved in a “hostile act.” “I just want to patrol our territorial waters,” he said.
The U.S. began joint patrols with the Philippines earlier this year prior to Duterte’s election win in May. The allies had sought to boost military cooperation to counter China’s claims to more than four-fifths of the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
In an e-mailed statement on Tuesday, the Armed Forces of the Philippines said that defense relations with the U.S. remain “rock solid” and activities planned this year would continue without interruption. The military had yet to receive a specific directive on how Duterte’s pronouncement on Mindanao would be carried out, it said.
Reacting to Duterte’s pronouncement on Mindanao, Pentagon spokesman Commander Gary Ross said on Monday that the U.S.-Philippine relationship “has been a cornerstone of stability for over 70 years.”
“We will continue to consult closely with our Filipino partners to appropriately tailor our assistance to whatever approach the new Administration adopts,” Ross said.
Duterte spokesman Ernesto Abella said in a televised briefing earlier Tuesday that the president’s statement that American soldiers should leave Mindanao was not yet policy, but the basis for possible action.
“Those statements are not policy set in stone, not policy yet,” Abella said.
The move to end joint patrols in the South China Sea signals Duterte’s intention to improve ties with China, according to Shen Shishun, a senior researcher at the China Institute of International Studies under China’s Foreign Ministry.
“The Philippines got little out of it, and it offended the Chinese, with whom they could have done more business with," Shen said. “Duterte saw this point and made a practical decision."