MANILA – President Rodrigo Duterte threatened Saturday to terminate a pact that allows U.S. troops to visit the Philippines, saying “bye-bye America” as he reacted with rage to what he thought was a U.S. decision to scrap a major aid package over human rights concerns.
A U.S. government aid agency, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, said earlier in the week that its board deferred a vote on a renewal of the development assistance package for the Philippines “subject to a further review of concerns around rule of law and civil liberties.”
The agency has clearly not voted to scrap or approve the aid package, but Duterte unleashed an expletives-laden tirade upon his arrival in his southern hometown of Davao after back-to-back visits to Cambodia and Singapore.
“I understand that we have been stricken out of the Millennium Challenge. Well, good, I welcome it,” Duterte said with apparent sarcasm.
“We can survive without American money,” he said.
“But you know, America, you might also be put to notice. Prepare to leave the Philippines, prepare for the eventual repeal or the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement,” he said, referring to a 1998 accord that governs American forces visiting the Philippines for joint combat exercises.
Speaking with reporters Friday, Duterte also told U.S. workers or troops to “start packing.”
“You know, tit for tat … if you can do this, so (can) we. It ain’t a one-way traffic,” Duterte said, adding tauntingly, “Bye-bye America, Start Packing”
The U.S. Embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Philippines was a U.S. colony from 1898 until the 1940s. The island group hosted permanent U.S. military bases until the Philippine government ordered them removed 25 years ago.
As many as 600 U.S. troops are currently stationed in the Philippines, and at least two major training exercises involving American and other forces are held in the country each year.
It’s not the first time Duterte raised the specter of removing troops or killing defense pacts with longtime allies in Washington.
In September, Duterte ordered out 100-plus American special forces out of the southern Philippines, where they had been advising local troops battling Muslim extremists.
All four military services have rotated training or small missions into the Philippines this year, according to the Military Times. The Army has supplied Green Berets for training and missions to counter Abu Sayyaff; The Marine Corps has rotating training missions to the Pacific Nation; The Air Force conducts joint training flights with Philippine air counterparts; The Navy has increased port visits to Manila and Subic Bay in part a response to China’s aggressive operations in the South China Sea.
In November, Duterte said he wanted U.S. troops out of his country in the next two years.
“I want in the next two years, to be freed from the presence of foreign military troops. I want them out,” Duterte told reporters Nov. 1. “And if I have to revise or abrogate agreements, executive agreements, I will.”
The 71-year-old Duterte, who describes himself as a left-wing politician, has made similar threats before and after taking office in June, but he and his officials have walked back on many of his public statements, causing confusion.
While calling Americans “sons of b——” and “hypocrites,” Duterte praised China as having “the kindest soul of all” for offering what he said was significant financial assistance. “So, what do I need America for?” he asked.
He also said Russia can be a very important ally. “They do not insult people, they do not interfere,” he said.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. also criticized the U.S. aid decision, saying it happened after Duterte declared he would chart a foreign policy course independent of Washington.
The Philippines had been slated for another aid package after its previous five-year, $434 million poverty reduction program was successfully completed in May under Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III.
The agency’s spokeswoman, Laura Allen, said Thursday that it would continue to monitor events in the Philippines before the next board review in March 2017.
The U.S. decision is among the first signs of how concerns about the rule of law and human rights under Duterte could entail economic costs.
The U.S. government, along with European Union and U.N. officials, has raised concerns about Duterte’s crackdown on illegal drugs, which has left more than 2,000 suspected drug users and dealers dead in purported gunbattles with police. More than 3,000 other deaths are being investigated to determine if they were linked to illegal drugs.
In his news conference, Duterte was pointedly asked how many crime suspects he has killed in the past when he was still a crime-busting city mayor amid his vague and contradicting accounts of his exploits. The former government prosecutor again gave contrasting replies.
“Maybe one, two three … I’m saying, maybe my bullets hit them, maybe not, but after the burumbumbumbum, they’re all dead,” Duterte said.
Replying to another question, he said that he indeed has killed, but did not provide details and tried to justify his act. “When I tell you now that I killed, do not term them as suspects because all of them died while they were fighting government people.”
He asked God for forgiveness in advance, saying he may not have time to pray if he’s assassinated. “God, forgive me for killing these idiots,” Duterte said, then blamed God for the presence of criminals. “You create a human monster so if you are God, why do you have to create these idiots? That’s why they die.”
Duterte, who has had a difficult relationship with President Obama, said he would change his mindset if President-elect Donald Trump appeals to him. “I have talked to Trump, he was very nice, very courteous,” he said. “I could not sense any hostile drift, or even the manner he was saying it, so, in deference, I’ll just wait.”
“I will let Obama fade away and if he disappears, then I will begin to reassess,” Duterte said, adding that he and Trump acknowledged each other’s similarly brash manners.
“We talk in the same language,” Duterte said. He recalled that when he told Trump in a recent phone call that “I like your mouth, it’s like mine,” he said Trump responded by saying, “Yes, Mr. President, we’re similar.”
“And you know, people with the same feather flock together,” Duterte said.
Despite the latest sharp words about the U.S. from Duterte, the Trump administration could re-establish the partnership without sacrificing America’s core values, said Patrick Cronin, director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
“The Philippines and the United States have long, multi-layered relationship between our two societies, and Manila and Washington share a great deal of interests with respect to maintaining regional order,” Cronin said.