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Amid Strained U.S. Relations, Philippine President To Visit China


We have heard so much from President Obama about pivoting towards Asia, making sure U.S. interests are protected in Asia, making sure that China's not the only big superpower there. Well, now there are questions about an important United States relationship in Asia, and we are talking about the Philippines. President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines is going to China this week, and it's causing concern in Washington.

Duterte in recent weeks has made some noises about rethinking the longstanding U.S.-Philippines defense alliance. He has even been talking about forging new relationships and buying military hardware from countries like China and Russia. Reporter Michael Sullivan is just back from a trip to Manila, and he's on the line. Good morning.


GREENE: So could this really be a breakup between the United States and the Philippines, or is that exaggerating?

SULLIVAN: I think that's exaggerating. They might be just taking a timeout. President Duterte today is clearly not feeling any love. And frankly, he wasn't as into the U.S. as his predecessors. And you know he's got a mouth. And you know he's still angry at the U.S. for its criticism of his war on drugs, which is why he told President Obama last week to go to hell and said he wants to pursue an independent foreign policy, hence the remarks about forging stronger alliances with Russia and China.

GREENE: Go to hell - that is strong language. But, Michael, I mean, just remind us. I mean, hasn't there been a lot of public opinion in the Philippines very much against China - one reason previous Philippine leaders have kept this relationship with the United States?

SULLIVAN: Yeah, absolutely. The Filipinos think China's been stealing their territory. And the International Court in The Hague back in July pretty much backed up the Filipinos' claim and rejected all of China's claims to the disputed territory. So for Duterte to reach out to China now, analysts here say, seems ill-timed if not downright bizarre.

DINDO MANHIT: I find it baffling that you're reaching out to your source of threat, to the risk to your security instead of strengthening existing relationship. And this existing relationship can really at least address or mitigate some of the risk on our territories.

SULLIVAN: That's Dindo Manhit, who heads the Albert del Rosario Institute, a Manila think tank, who can't for the life of him figure out why Duterte is flirting with China and dissing the U.S. now after that court ruling in the Hague.

GREENE: Well, so, Michael, even if there are risks with forging a closer relationship with China, I mean, does Duterte have a point that his country has not felt the love in the United States?

SULLIVAN: He does, and a lot of analysts in Manila feel that way. Manila only gets maybe $100 million, at best, a year from the U.S. and military aid. And there are a lot of other countries around the world that get billions of dollars. And if the Philippines is so important to the so-called pivot in Asia, then why don't they get to see more of that money? That's their point.

GREENE: What exactly is Duterte trying to get out of this trip to China?

SULLIVAN: I think Duterte is looking for economic assistance, serious pledges of infrastructure-project assistance and the like. I think he's also trying to maybe get the Chinese to agree to allow Filipino fishermen to return to the disputed Scarborough Shoal, which is only about 130 miles from Manila, which the Chinese seized a few years back.

And Philippine fishermen haven't been able to go there since. Either way, I think it might be useful for the U.S. to work harder behind the scenes to show the Filipinos what you were talking about before - a little more love. And that's what Malou Tiquia, who runs the consulting firm Publicus Asia, says.

MALOU TIQUIA: If you have a strong Philippines who is able to tell China back off, who's able to say, Japan, please enter into the picture, or is able to say, Australia, let's put together a partnership, then wouldn't that be ideal for the United States in its pivot that you have a strong Philippines?

GREENE: Ideal for the United States, but that would be the United States saying, hey, we want you to be strong, Philippines, but we also don't want you to be so strong that you decide to continue building relations with China. It's a tough spot.

SULLIVAN: Tough spot for both of those countries, I think, David.

GREENE: All right, we'll be watching these meetings in China very closely as the president of Philippines heads to Beijing. Michael Sullivan, thanks very much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.