Updated Sept. 13, 2016 12:16 p.m. ET
MANILA—Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signaled an abrupt departure from his nation’s longstanding military reliance on the U.S., ordering his defense secretary to seek gear from suppliers in China and Russia to fight drug traffickers and insurgents.
In another shift, he also said Tuesday that the Philippines would stop patrolling the South China Sea alongside the U.S. Navy, to avoid upsetting Beijing. Instead, he said the nation’s military would focus on combating drugs and terrorism.
The Philippines has had close ties with the U.S. for decades, most recently bolstering military cooperation through a 2014 pact. Both Washington and Manila have leveraged
their alliance to counter China, whose increasingly assertive actions in support of its maritime claims have stoked unease in the region.
- Duterte Demands U.S. Military Advisers Leave the Philippines (Sept. 12, 2016)
- Obama Nixes Meeting After Duterte Lobs an Insult (Sept. 6, 2016)
But since coming to power on June 30, Mr. Duterte has indicated he wants to distance the Philippines from the U.S., a stance that threatens to alter the Asia-Pacific region’s strategic balance. He said Monday he wanted the U.S. military to leave Mindanao, the site of a strategic base set to host American forces.
Mr. Duterte’s statements this week were the latest in a string of developments that have pleased, surprised and horrified his audiences since he took office. His so-called war on drugs and crime has already claimed 2,956 lives, according to police on Monday, and his sometimes crude statements have insulted targets as varied as the pope, the United Nations head and U.S. President Barack Obama.
But no shift is arguably as important as Mr. Duterte’s political turn from the U.S., the Philippines’ former colonial ruler until 1946.
In the speech Tuesday, the Philippine leader told officers to concentrate on domestic priorities. Rather than a possible battle in the South China Sea, Mr. Duterte said the military should focus on fighting drug traffickers and insurgencies.
Until now, the Philippines has bought the gear needed to fight such battles from suppliers in the U.S. and its Asian allies such as South Korea. But on Tuesday Mr. Duterte ordered Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to seek suppliers in Russia and China, saying they offered soft loans payable in 20 to 25 years.
“I want weaponry and armaments…We don’t need F-16 jets, that is of no use to us,” he said, referring to the U.S.-made aircraft. “We don’t intend to fight any country. Let’s content ourselves even with propeller-driven planes that we could use extensively in anti-insurgency.”
Neither the U.S. Embassy in Manila nor the foreign and defense ministries of China and Russia immediately responded to requests for comment.
The Philippine military seemed caught off guard by the president’s remarks. “We are awaiting guidelines on how the president’s policy statements will be implemented,” a defense spokesman said.
Mr. Duterte enjoys a huge majority in the Philippine Congress and has few opponents willing to criticize him publicly. Additionally, he has courted the military and the police by pledging to double their salaries.
Although Mr. Duterte is unlikely to abrogate the U.S. defense treaty, he risks damaging ties with its closest ally since “friendly and constructive relations at the political level oil the wheels of the alliance,” said Angelica Mangahas, deputy executive director of the Albert del Rosario Institute for Strategic and International Studies in Manila.
The U.S. provided $441 million in security funding to the Philippines between 2002 and 2013, according to Rand Corp., a U.S. think tank. The Obama administration has earmarked a record $120 million in military aid to the poor country this year alone. The U.S. provided substantial aid to the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan devastated the country in 2013.
“There are two camps in Washington—one that thinks Duterte is about to push the alliance off a cliff and there is nothing U.S. policy makers can do about it, and one that continues to argue that the alliance is just too important to both countries and so a way forward must be found,” said Gregory Poling of the Center for International and Strategic Studies. “But that latter group is losing the argument day by day as Duterte continues this anti-American rhetoric.”
During his successful campaign for the presidency, Mr. Duterte spoke of wanting to improve relations with Beijing but didn’t speak publicly of wanting to diminish ties with Washington; indeed, foreign policy played almost no part in the presidential race.
“We are not cutting our alliances, but we will follow an independent foreign policy,” Mr. Duterte told members of the Philippine Air Force on Tuesday.
Now, Mr. Duterte’s apparent tilt toward Washington’s strategic rivals in Beijing and Moscow and open hostility toward the U.S. imperil that relationship.
“I do not like the Americans. It’s simply a matter of principle for me,” Mr. Duterte said Monday.
Last week, Mr. Duterte sparked controversy by appearing to call Mr. Obama a “son of a whore” during a media briefing, leading Mr. Obama to cancel planned talks with the Philippine leader.
On Monday, Mr. Duterte said U.S. forces in Zamboanga on the island of Mindanao, which advise local troops on counterterrorism operations, should leave, saying they were targets for insurgents. “They have to go; I do not want a rift with the U.S. but they have to go,” Mr. Duterte said.
The Philippine military said American personnel would be “eased from harm’s way” in the southern Philippines, where the army is waging a campaign against the extremist Abu Sayyaf group. “We assure our people and allies that Philippine-U.S. defense relations remain rock solid,” the military said.
The 2014 security pact was one of the main foreign-policy initiatives of former PresidentBenigno Aquino III, who aimed to secure American backing in the Philippines’ struggle against China over disputed territory in the South China Sea.
The pact was also an important plank of Mr. Obama’s strategy of rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region in response to China’s rising power. The two countries began joint patrols of the South China Sea in April.
Earlier this year, the two nations agreed to deploy thousands of American troops to five strategic Philippine bases. A timeframe wasn’t disclosed. Mr. Duterte’s spokesman said on Tuesday the leader still planned to honor the defense pact.
The Philippine leader’s U.S. criticism falls on fertile ground. Resentment over the U.S.’s nearly half-century of colonial rule here remains strong in some quarters. Yet Philippine society is on the whole notably pro-American. A June survey by local polling service Social Weather Stations found that the U.S. had a net trust rating of 72% among Filipinos. China had a net trust rating of minus 24%, with many Filipinos regarding China as a bully.
Still, Mr. Duterte has sometimes contrasted the U.S. unfavorably with China. On a trip to Indonesia last week he thanked China “for being so generous to us” by offering to build drug-rehabilitation centers in the country.
“Only China will help us,” he said. “America just gave you principles of law and nothing else.”
—Cris Larano in Manila contributed to this article.
Write to Trefor Moss at Trefor.Moss@wsj.com
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