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Outspoken Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has threatened to eject American troops from his country, but that could leave the Philippines powerless against potential Chinese encroachment.
The U.S. and Philippines were enemies during the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902, with Washington only granting Manila full independence in 1946. But since a 1951 treaty that enables each country to aid one another during an invasion, the world's largest economy has maintained an on-and-off military presence on the island nation for decades.
But on Sunday, Duterte threatened to end a security pact signed in 2014 by his predecessor Benigno Aquino III, known as the Philippines-US Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). The deal, which was only implemented in January, brought U.S. forces back onto to military bases in the Philippines for the first time since they were expelled in 1991.
Around 300 U.S. troops were being routinely rotated in and out of the country, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in May. In addition, there are also about 107 soldiers currently based in the southern province of Mindanao.
Duterte, also known as The Punisher, has ramped up his anti-American rhetoric in recent days after Washington, alongside Europe and other members of the international community, condemned the government's use of extra-judicial killings in a narcotics crackdown.
"Instead of helping us [with the war on drugs], the first to hit was the State Department. So you can go to hell, Mr Obama, you can go to hell," the former Davao City mayor was quoted as saying on Tuesday, adding that Washington had also refused to sell weapons to his administration.
The White House said Duterte's comments were "at odds" with the deeply rooted bilateral alliance, adding that Manila had yet to communicate any changes in the relationship, Reuters reported on Wednesday.
A look back at history reveals the potentially disastrous consequences if Manila were to oust U.S. troops, Ernest Bower, president and CEO of political risk consultancy BowerGroupAsia (BGA), told CNBC on Tuesday.
After The Philippines closed U.S. bases in Subic Bay and Clart in 1991, Beijing began asserting its claim to the Scarborough Shoal, a territory in the South China Sea that is claimed by both Manila and Beijing, Bower pointed out. That eventually resulted in China's 2012 exclusion of all Philippine fishing and law enforcement activities from the shoal, which motivated Manila to seek arbitration from The Hague international court.
It's hard to say whether or not Beijing would exploit the lack of U.S. forces to ramp up its presence in the conflicted South China Sea. But escalated Chinese aggression amid already heightened geopolitical tensions was definitely the worst-case scenario, Richard Bush, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution at The Brookings Institution, warned in a note last week.
Beijing could expand its physical and military presence in the region, to the point of effectively seizing landforms held by Vietnam, Philippines and others, Bush explained. But that risk of conflict was reduced if East Asian governments maintained a robust alliance with the U.S., he added.
The withdrawal of U.S. forces could also impact the Philippines's terror situation.
The soldiers in Mindanao—a hotbed for jihadist group Abu Sayyaf—are there to assist local forces with counter-terror operations, including surveillance, training and information sharing, according to local media. Last month, Duterte called on American soldiers to leave the region as they were prime targets for Abu Sayyaf, but his Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana later insisted on their presence.
"We still need them there because they have the surveillance capability that our armed forces don't have," Lorenzana was reported as saying on September 15.
Lastly, Duterte could endanger his sky-high popularity rating if he kicks the U.S. military out of the country.
"The people didn't elect Duterte to deal with foreign policy. The anti-American rhetoric is good politics in The Philippines but if you took American troops out and left the country open to China, Filipinos would start to turn again [Duterte] and if that happens, he would be in trouble," Bower said.
Ultimately, strategists are uncertain on whether the Philippine leader will follow through on his threats.
It's too early to tell whether Washington should accept Manila's new foreign policy vision, analysts at The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said in a Friday note. "There is little question Duterte is set on pursuing a more independent foreign policy, at least when it comes to regional security issues, but it remains to be seen whether he will decide to roll back other areas of bilateral U.S.-Philippine cooperation."
Bower, meanwhile, does not believe Duterte will take action, saying that his rhetoric was more bark than bite. "The U.S.-Philippine alliance will weather the storm."