As the body count mounts in the Philippines’ deadly war on drugs, and its combative president’s rhetoric plumbs new depths, the mood in Washington toward a key Asian ally is hardening.
Influential US lawmakers are warning that the extrajudicial killings in the drug war — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Friday compared it to the Holocaust — could affect US aid.
And while the administration of US President Barack Obama maintains that its 65-year-old alliance with the Philippines remains “ironclad,” a senior US diplomat is cautioning Duterte against more anti-US posturing.
“I think it would be a serious mistake in a democratic country like the Philippines to underestimate the power of the public’s affinity for the US. That’s people power,” US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel said.
Russel did not draw a direct comparison, but past Philippine presidents have been toppled by popular protests dubbed “people power,” including former president Ferdinand Marcos, who was ousted in 1986.
Duterte has bristled at US criticism of the drug war and repeatedly spoken about dialing back security cooperation — although he says he will maintain the alliance.
This week he said that joint military exercises of Philippine and US troops scheduled for next week in the Philippines would be the last such drills.
His foreign secretary quickly said the decision was not final.
Such a step would impede Washington’s plans to expand the footprint of US forces in Southeast Asia to counter China.
The previous Philippine government signed an agreement to give the US forces access to five Philippine military bases. That reflected Manila’s anxiety over the territorial ambitions of China with which it has competing claims in the disputed South China Sea. Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam have also claims in the region.
“If he followed through on this pledge it would be devastating to alliance management,” said Gregory Poling, a fellow with the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic Studies. “How does one sustain a military alliance if your militaries don’t exercise together?”
On Friday, Duterte said that Adolf Hitler had killed 3 million Jews and that he himself would be “happy to slaughter” 3 million drug addicts.
More than 3,000 people have died in the crackdown on drug pushers and users since Duterte took office three months ago.
In Hawaii to meet with Southeast Asian defense ministers, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter hinted at US impatience with the Philippine government over Duterte’s remarks.
“Just speaking personally for myself, I find these comments deeply troubling,” Carter said.
A day earlier, he had described the US relationship with the Philippines as “ironclad.”
However, US Senator Ben Cardin, top-ranking Democrat on the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pulled no punches.
“It is reprehensible and, frankly, disgusting that a democratically elected leader is talking about the mass murder of his own people, with Hitler’s Holocaust as his inspiration, no less,” he said.
Cardin and Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, author of a law that prohibits US assistance to foreign security forces that commit gross human rights abuses, took to the Senate floor this week to decry the drug war.
They accused Duterte of terrorizing Filipinos through his drug war and endorsing “mass murder.”
Leahy said because of the “systemic challenges” in the Philippines, it might be necessary to consider further conditions on aid until the Duterte government “demonstrates a commitment to the rule of law.”
The Philippines received about US$175 million in US development assistance in fiscal 2015 and US$50 million in foreign military financing.
This year, it has gotten US$75 million for counterterrorism and maritime security.
Since 2011, it has received three decommissioned US Coast Guard cutters to bolster its meager navy.
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