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America’s Erratic Philippine Ally Duterte kowtows to China on control of the South China Sea.

America’s Erratic Philippine Ally Duterte kowtows to China on control of the South China Sea.

Oct. 23, 2016 12:18 p.m. ET

With Hugo Chávez dead and Cristina Kirchner out of power, new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is bidding to become the world’s most erratic leader not in North Korea. Last week he continued his anti-American showboating on a trip that was a deep kowtow to China.

“Your honors, in this venue I announce my separation from the United States,” he said Thursday in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. “So I will be dependent on you for all time,” adding that “America has lost now.”

Mr. Duterte piled on the anti-American animus. “No more American influence. No more American [military] exercises. It’s time to say goodbye, my friend.” China, by contrast, “has the character of an Oriental. It does not go around insulting people”—a reference to U.S. criticism of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines.

Back in the Philippines Friday night Mr. Duterte tried to walk back some of his comments, claiming they applied only to his foreign policy. But that would still seem to signal acquiescence to China’s trampling of Philippine rights in the South China Sea, such as harassing fishermen, blocking oil-exploration ships and conquering Scarborough Shoal, a fishing area 120 miles off the Philippine coast. Previous President Benigno Aquino took China to international arbitration and improved U.S. ties. Now Mr. Duterte could cede the vital waterway to Chinese control while signaling to Beijing (and Moscow and Tehran) that bullying works.

It’s possible that Mr. Duterte’s rhetoric outstrips what he’ll be able to pursue. Filipinos remain staunchly pro-American, with a recent Social Weather Stations survey finding 76% have “much trust” in the U.S., versus 22% for China. Filipinos know about Beijing’s South China Sea abuses, and they know that when Typhoon Haiyan struck in 2013 the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier and $20 million in aid while China initially chipped in $100,000.

The bilateral deals struck last week in Beijing were also modest, focused on trade, tourism and investment. The two sides agreed to open some coast-guard cooperation and establish a mechanism to discuss the South China Sea. But there were no announcements on marine resources or Scarborough Shoal.

Mr. Duterte has said he won’t abrogate the 1951 mutual-defense treaty, and he hasn’t moved against the 2014 deal that invited U.S. troops to rotate through Philippine bases. Even his promise to end joint military exercises with the U.S. came into question last week when Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana revealed that the Cabinet was never consulted and no final decision has been made. “It is still on,” he told Congress.

Still, Manila’s pivot from Washington has been dramatic enough that respected former President Fidel Ramos, who helped draft Mr. Duterte to seek the Presidency, blasted him this month as “a huge disappointment and let-down.” Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio has warned publicly that if a deal eventually materializes in which Mr. Duterte undermines Philippine sovereignty at Scarborough Shoal, “you can impeach him.”

Filipinos and their friends overseas must be prepared for worse. For the U.S. that means maintaining as many productive ties with Manila as possible and pressing the case for the alliance publicly and privately.
Mr. Duterte may be an aberration, but his behavior shows the risks if the U.S. lets the foundations of a rules-based order in Asia deteriorate. The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal represents the American vision of open markets and deepened economic ties, but support for ratification in the Congress is uncertain. Tight military budgets, the Obama Administration’s global retreat and Donald Trump’s rhetoric have all raised concerns about the U.S. commitment to Asia. Such doubts give populist politicians space to wreak havoc.
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