The U.S. Can Stay Friends With the Philippines

New dealings.

Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

For a moment last week, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte seemed to have orchestrated one of the most dramatic geopolitical shifts in Asia since the end of the Cold War -- abandoning the U.S., his country’s longtime ally, for rival China. Characteristically, he did so with zero subtlety. In responding, the U.S. should avoid making the same mistake.

That’s not to say Duterte’s anti-U.S. comments in Beijing last week should be dismissed as the ravings of a hot-tempered diplomatic lightweight. He remains the Philippines’ legitimately elected leader, and at least some of his supporters hold anti-American views -- stemming in part from America’s history as a colonial overlord. Whatever Duterte meant -- he now says he was talking only about striking a more independent line in foreign policy -- there’s every reason to believe ties with the U.S. will cool in the near term. Meanwhile, China has promised Duterte billions in soft loans and potential infrastructure investments.

Nevertheless, the Philippines’ pivot contains more fury than substance. Duterte isn’t the first Asian leader to return from China with impressive promises of investment and cooperation; typically, only a fraction of that money gets spent. Duterte’s musings about saddling up with Russia as well as China -- “three of us against the world” -- wildly inflates his country’s global relevance. And if his charm offensive calms tensions in the South China Sea, that would suit the U.S. as well as anyone.

In reality, the U.S. still enjoys great support in the Philippines, from both the military and the public. More than three-fourths of Filipinos say they have “much trust” in America; less than one-fourth say the same about China. Already Duterte’s obsequious praise of the Xi Jinping regime has prompted grumbling at home. The Filipino military has a history of coups -- and little interest in replacing American weapons, logistical support and training with Russian and Chinese technology.

For its part, China has serious inherent shortcomings as a partner. The terms of its development loans have, as often as not, ended up fostering resentment rather than friendship. And on its fundamental point of contention with the Philippines -- over who owns several rocks, reefs and islands that fall within the latter’s exclusive economic zone -- neither country can afford to compromise. Sooner or later, and especially if China uses this temporary calm to resume militarizing certain islands, a break is almost certain.

The U.S. would thus be wise not to overreact to Duterte’s insults. Threats to cut off aid or military support would only swing public support behind his anti-American campaign.

And the U.S. has plenty of other points of influence. American commanders are no doubt already reminding their Filipino counterparts that a radical break in relations would have strategic consequences. Allies such as Japan -- the Philippines’ third-biggest trading partner after China and the U.S. -- can quietly reinforce the message. Meanwhile, the U.S. can and should calmly continue to deepen defense ties with SingaporeVietnam, Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries.

When dealing with a hothead, it’s usually good practice to maintain one’s cool. The U.S. has weathered strategic frictions with friends before -- including far more critical allies Japan and South Korea -- and can surely do so again.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.