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The U.S. and the Philippines are allies, but you wouldn't know it from the way Rodrigo Duterte talks about the U.S. The Philippines' new leader has sworn at President Obama, and he's threatened to, quote, "break up" with America and turn to Russia or China. As NPR's Jackie Northam reports, this leaves the Obama administration wondering how to respond.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Since being elected in late June, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has dialed up the anti-American rhetoric, demanded the U.S. withdraw special operations forces fighting Islamists in the south of the Philippines and threatened to cancel joint naval patrols and military exercises.
JONAH BLANK: There is no filter for Duterte. Whatever he happens to be feeling at any moment comes right out of his mouth.
NORTHAM: Jonah Blank, an Asia analyst at the Rand Corporation, says Duterte will often back off those statements shortly afterwards.
BLANK: And that's not the way political leaders typically function, so the U.S. has to try to figure out, is this policy, or is this just a rash statement?
NORTHAM: Duterte's actions threaten to undermine a key strategy for the Obama administration. The so-called pivot to Asia is meant to build up security and diplomatic relations with Asian partners, especially with a resurgent China laying claim to most of the South China Sea. Jeff Smith with the American Foreign Policy Council says the Philippines is an important player in the pivot strategy.
JEFF SMITH: To have Duterte do a 180 and essentially move the Philippines out of the U.S. camp and toward China really shakes up the regional order.
NORTHAM: Duterte is angry at U.S. criticism of his violent anti-drug campaign which has left over 3,000 people dead, says Vikram Singh. He's a former Pentagon official in charge of defense relations with Southeast Asian nations. Singh says Duterte's rhetoric also feeds into a deep-seeded resentment many Filipinos have about America's colonial legacy.
VIKRAM SINGH: I think he's trying to demonstrate that he is an independent and strong leader by his willingness to stand up to even the United States.
NORTHAM: But what works at home doesn't necessarily work on the world stage, says Jeff Smith.
SMITH: He doesn't understand the importance of words and how much a president's speech and language can affect the trajectory of long-term alliance.
NORTHAM: The question is, what can the U.S. do about an important but volatile leader? The Rand Corporation's Jonah Blank says don't buy into his games.
BLANK: One of the things that the U.S. is trying to do is trying not to get caught up in this cycle of policymaking by pique - so every time that Duterte says something provocative, not simply jumping in and assuming that that is going to be translated to policy.
NORTHAM: Former Pentagon official Singh says despite Duterte, relations between the U.S. and the Philippines are very strong.
SINGH: Government relationships at every level - economic, military - the people who care about U.S.-Philippine relations are probably all very worried, and they're all talking to each other. The good thing is those relationships are sort of what you see through a bad period.
NORTHAM: But Singh says you can't deny that the leader of a country determines how it will treat its friends and allies. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
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