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What A Phillipines Realignment With China Could Mean For U.S. Relations In Asia


President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines said his country is done with the United States. President Duterte has been in China this week. He told an audience of business people there, I've realigned myself in your ideological flow. 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. It's the only way.

Thomas Pepinsky is an associate professor at Cornell University who specializes in Southeast Asia. Professor, thanks very much for being with us.

THOMAS PEPINSKY: Thanks very much for having me.

SIMON: What do you make of this?

PEPINSKY: This is a bit of a perplexing set of statements from Duterte. If you want to be even more confused, you can check out the fact that he has since walked back some of those comments.

SIMON: What are the implications for the United States to lose that partnership, if you please, with the Philippines?

PEPINSKY: Well, it's unlikely that this partnership will be lost entirely. But the real implications of Duterte's statements are that they signal a sort of disconnect between him as an individual and as a leader and his foreign policy establishment in this population. It signals a kind of instability or volatility in the way that he makes decisions, in the way that he conveys what he believes Filipino national interests to be.

SIMON: I'm going to just guess now - you mean people in government and perhaps the military think the partnership is important for the Philippines and he has another idea?

PEPINSKY: Absolutely. It's, again, very hard to see exactly what Duterte himself believes the interests are. But the U.S. remains quite popular in the Philippines. And even members of his own cabinet appear to be a bit perplexed or baffled by some of these statements. And they very quickly hastened to walk back his own statements.

SIMON: At the same time, has being an ally of the U.S. made it a little harder for the Philippines to do business with China, which, after all, is the big dog in that neighborhood?

PEPINSKY: I don't really think so. My sense is that had Duterte not said anything about U.S.-Philippine relations in Beijing, he would have signed most of the deals that he signed anyway. In fact, the Obama administration has put some emphasis on encouraging the Philippines to invest with partners in the region as well, including China. So this probably wasn't even necessary.

SIMON: President Duterte was elected in a landslide this year. He declared what he called a bloody war on drugs, which, in fact, sounds pretty bloody. Hundreds of people have been killed each month. The U.N. and U.S. has criticized this. But has it been popular at home?

PEPINSKY: It has indeed been popular at home. And this is ultimately the source of his current sky-high popularity rating as president.

SIMON: And it's been popular because?

PEPINSKY: It's hard to say exactly why the Filipino population is so concerned with drugs, given that drugs and drug use is not particularly any more of a national scourge there than it would be in any other country in the region.

I believe that the core source of Duterte's popularity in this action is that Filipinos believe that this is a signal of his ability to enforce a kind of order that the country has not seen in quite some time.

SIMON: In your judgment, should the U.S. make some kind of response to what President Duterte has said in China or kind of let it ride?

PEPINSKY: I dont think the U.S. is going to let it ride. I think that the Obama administration has so far been fairly measured in how it responds to these periodic outbursts. In the past, the United States has responded to Duterte's insulting of Obama himself by refusing to meet with him, and that actually led to a pretty quick apology. And my guess is that the response from the Obama administration will be, once again, to clarify that it tends to live up to its treaty obligations with the Philippines and it expects the Philippines to do the same.

SIMON: Thomas Pepinsky, associate professor at Cornell. Thanks so much for being with us.

PEPINSKY: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.