Analysts: Duterte's harsh U.S. rhetoric may hurt alliance

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
maxPaginationLinks: 10

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — The Philippines may lose benefits from its alliance with the United States if President Rodrigo Duterte keeps speaking harshly of his country's only treaty ally. Analysts say it is unlikely the relationship between the two countries will collapse – but it may deteriorate significantly.

"The worst case scenario is we will have a very minimal partnership with the U.S., the way Malaysia and Indonesia have; not as allies but only as strategic partners," said geopolitical analyst Richard Heydarian, author of Asia's New Battlefield: The U.S.A., China and the Struggle for the Western Pacific.

Under the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951, the Philippines and the U.S. agreed to respond to any external armed attack on either one's territory, armed forces, public vessels and aircraft. In other words, an attack on the Philippines is an attack on the U.S. and vice versa.

On Monday, Duterte said he would call for the exit of U.S. Special Forces in Mindanao to spare them from violent threats from Moros, whom he said were still angry at Americans over atrocities committed during the American colonization of the Philippines.

'New normal'

At the East Asia Summit in Vientiane, Laos and again in a speech in Malacañang on Monday, Duterte spoke about the 1906 Bud Dajo massacre in which American troops killed hundreds of Moros. He challenged the U.S.'s moral ascendancy to question him over human rights as he wages his war on illegal drugs.

Heydarian said Duterte's rhetoric is changing the tone of Philippine-U.S. relations. "This is the 'new normal' in Philippine-US relations. The two sides have to accept the new realities. The US has to accept that they no longer have a deferential, if not subservient, leader in the Philippines. The two countries are no longer in sync on all issues."

Beyond Duterte's words, it is the extrajudicial killings he allegedly condones that's ruffling western feathers. This, for Heydarian, could end up being the flashpoint for an abrogation of the country's alliance with the U.S. and compromise its good standing in the international community.

Heydarian said it would take a decisive act by both countries to end the alliance, which is a remote possibility. But if the Duterte administration fails to establish good will with the current and next U.S. administrations, Washington may end up taking a lukewarm approach to the treaty and other agreements with Manila.

This would mean millions of dollars in defense and humanitarian aid lost. In 2015, Manila received $66 million in military assistance. In July, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry presented Duterte with a $32 million pledge in law enforcement assistance. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has provided the Philippines $5 billion over the last 30 years.

Another crucial area of cooperation is disaster response. The U.S. Government has given the Philippines $240 million in disaster assistance in the past 10 years. "We are very vulnerable to humanitarian crisis, whether manmade or natural. So the U.S. will be there and I think that will be a very rude awakening that you cannot mess with the United States because we need them on a whole range of issues," Heydarian said.

No cause for alarm?

Defense analyst and military historian Jose Antonio Custodio emphasized the Philippines' dependence on other countries to boost its military capability. "Our military needs as much assistance as it gets in order to modernize," said Jose.

For Jose, Duterte's rhetoric thus far is no cause for alarm. "It is not threatening any of the established [agreements]. It never threatened the EDCA. It never threatened the Mutual Defense Treaty. It is specific to Mindanao."

In fact, Jose believes a dose of irreverence towards the U.S. may prove healthy for the alliance. "It makes both sides more conscientious of what to expect, what to do; more sensitivities to what may arise in their future. So it keeps people on their toes."

Both Jose and Heydarian say they key is to balance Duterte's goal of an independent foreign policy with maintaining and cultivating vital alliances.