Philippines president, driven by a sense of grievance over colonial history and perceived slights, threatens to undo a vital American relationship in Asia
“When you pick a fight with him, he will not let it pass—he will deal with you,” says Jesus Dureza, a former classmate who serves in the Duterte cabinet. “This is very deep in him.”
His anti-U.S. rhetoric flared last month when he declared Mr. Obama shouldn’t lecture him on human rights. In an aside directed at no one, he used an exclamation of frustration meaning “son of a whore,” which some in the international press interpreted as a dig at the
Mr. Obama then canceled plans for a one-on-one meeting with him at the regional
summit in U.S. .
It was two days later that Mr. Duterte approached Mr. Obama there. Laos
In recent weeks, Mr. Duterte has canceled U.S.-Philippine military exercises. He said he might annul a 2014 U.S.-Philippines defense pact, a key aspect of Mr. Obama’s “Asian pivot,” that lets the
soldiers to Philippine bases. And he has threatened to “cross the Rubicon” and
ditch the countries’ 65-year-old treaty in favor of accords with U.S. Russia and . China
Beijing, he signed
business deals with President Xi Jinping, who promised the
over $9 billion in loans in return for Mr. Duterte’s agreement to restart
bilateral talks. Philippines
“I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow,” Mr. Duterte said in the Beijing speech, “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.”
Mr. Duterte also set aside his country’s territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea, where China controls a contested reef, Scarborough Shoal, about 125 miles off the Philippine coast, that it took over in 2012.
Souring relations could leave the U.S. with fewer options for expanding its military presence in the South China Sea—a resource-rich and strategically important area claimed almost entirely by China, and in part by several Southeast Asian states—and make it harder to portray itself as a guarantor of regional security, as it has done since World War II.
Before Mr. Duterte’s talk of “separation,”
officials said the relationship continued to function. Afterward, a State
Department spokesman called his comments “inexplicably at odds” with the
bilateral relationship, which officials including the president have described
as “ironclad." U.S.
Philippine defense officials have said publicly they are largely in the dark about Mr. Duterte’s plans. They nonetheless make clear he intends to forge a more independent foreign policy than his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III.
Mr. Duterte is “trying to liberate us” from a “shackling dependency” on America, wrote Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. in a Facebook post this month. Filipinos are treated as “little brown brothers” of the
he wrote. Mr. Yasay didn’t respond to inquiries. U.S.
Mr. Duterte’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article. Publicly, he has faulted
for failing to halt China’s
territorial grabs and for refusing to give explicit guarantees it would protect
all Philippine territory, including remote possessions in the South
Mr. Duterte’s nationalism, displayed in his angry reaction to Mr. Obama’s admonishments, echoes sentiments common among left-leaning Filipinos that
never atoned for invading the archipelago in 1898 and violently subduing the
former Spanish colony. With independence in 1946, the America Philippines passed into the hands of what many
left-leaning politicians such as Mr. Duterte regarded as a corrupt Manila elite
installed by . Washington
The son of a provincial governor on Mindanao, Mr. Duterte grew up in a troubled region with ample cause to resent both
A largely Muslim area in an overwhelmingly Catholic nation, it was never fully
conquered by Washington .
When the Spain U.S. took over, Mindanao’s sultanates put up stiff resistance.
For the people Mindanao, the colonial experience left scars and a hatred of perceived oppression and disrespect, says Ms. Duterte, the president’s sister, who lives in
largest. She says their grandmother, a Muslim, helped Mr. Duterte come to
was guilty of crimes during its invasion and colonization. Washington
He was a rebel from the start, say friends and family. As a boy, he was expelled from his strait-laced Jesuit school for squirting blue ink on a priest, recalls Mr. Dureza. At high school he was a brawler. “He always had that hair-trigger temper,” says Carlos Dominguez III, a childhood friend and now Mr. Duterte’s finance secretary.
He staggered into the family home one night, clutching a stab wound from a street fight, his sister says. He later shot a college classmate in the leg in reprisal for an attack on a friend, Mr. Dureza says, noting that the other man recovered and Mr. Duterte faced no legal blowback.
At university in
studied politics under Jose Maria Sison, who later founded the Communist Party
and in 1969 launched an armed insurrection. Mr. Sison, now in exile in the
Netherlands, says he schooled Mr. Duterte in what he viewed as the evils of
American imperialism and the corrupt nexus of business and political families
who have ruled the Philippines at the expense of ordinary Filipinos—a system
Mr. Duterte has pledged to upend. Philippines
The Philippine communist party is listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. Mr. Duterte has said he sympathizes with the party, which he never joined.
His views on law and order coalesced in the 1980s when violent criminal gangs terrorized
. Mr. Duterte was
robbed at gunpoint, leading him to swear to destroy the gang responsible and
others such as them, says Leo Villareal, who worked with Mr. Duterte at Davao
City . Davao City
Mr. Duterte worked through the mid-1980s as a city prosecutor, having surprised his family by finishing law school, his sister says. The country was descending into chaos, ruled by U.S.-backed strongman Ferdinand Marcos.
After a “People Power” revolution ousted Mr. Marcos in 1986, the criminal-justice system deteriorated, with wealthy Filipinos often escaping prosecution through bribes while other cases could drag on for years. Mr. Duterte came to see the legal process as “something that can be delayed or derailed,” Mr. Dureza says, with direct action the only way to effect change.
Elected mayor of
City in 1988, he adopted a strict
approach that his sister, Ms. Duterte, says was modeled on ’s
disciplinarian leader, the late Lee Kuan Yew. He imposed curfews, and smoking
and drinking restrictions. Singapore
He declared a crackdown on suspected drug dealers, and vigilante death squads in
killed more than 1,400 alleged criminals, according to Human Rights Watch and
other rights groups. Mr. Duterte has said in speeches and interviews he
encouraged police to be tough and shoot anyone resisting arrest but never
personally ordered murders. Davao
His measures were popular, and locals gave him the nickname “The Punisher.” He served seven terms, with interruptions for term limits, until 2016.
Along the way, Mr. Duterte nursed grievances over perceived
U.S. slights, including a 2002 incident in which
an American slipped out of the country under mysterious circumstances after a
bomb exploded in his hotel room. Mr.
Duterte suspected a CIA plot and brooded over the episode for years, friends
embassy in Manila says: “We took no action
beyond providing routine consular services assisting a citizen
with a medical evacuation. As services were rendered, we consulted closely with
Philippine authorities.” U.S.
Soon after the 2002 incident, the U.S. denied Mr. Duterte a visa, and his partner, a nurse, had her U.S. work visa canceled, say a friend and an associate of Mr. Duterte’s who are familiar with the incidents and attribute the moves to U.S. concerns about extrajudicial killings in Davao City. The
U.S. embassy in declined to
comment on the matter. Manila
From 2002, the
military was providing counterterrorism support in parts of Mindanao at ’s request to help
subdue Muslim separatists. In 2007, the government suggested holding an annual
joint U.S.-Philippine exercise in Manila . Davao
That provoked Mr. Duterte, who persuaded the Davao City council to pass a resolution permanently preventing American forces from exercising in the area. “I don’t want American soldiers in my city,” he told the council, local media reported. “Because of their arrogance and pretended superiority, the Americans invaded Iraq to kill Saddam Hussein but ended up destroying the country. We don’t want that to happen to us.”
Mr. Duterte initially refused supporters’ entreaties to run for president. He reversed course last November because he said he couldn’t stomach the idea that then-poll leader Grace Poe, who held American citizenship until 2012, might win.
His victory in May’s election came after he promised to wipe out crime and spread the benefits of a fast-growing economy more evenly. “It’s going to be bloody,” he predicted during a January interview with the Journal. “People will die.”
Mr. Duterte is popular at home, with 76% of Filipinos saying in a poll this month by Social Weather Stations, a research group, that they are satisfied with his work.
His presidential campaign featured only mild criticism of the U.S. That changed after he took office and faced foreign criticism.
At the Laos summit, he lashed out at Mr. Obama for alleged American war crimes over a century ago, holding up a photo of slain Filipinos and describing them as his own ancestors, says a person who was there.
Some of Mr. Duterte’s colleagues say they are caught off-guard by his outbursts, in which he departs from prepared remarks.
“We can only write the speeches,” says one communications official, “we can’t make him read them.”