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Duterte, Pushing Break With U.S., Runs Up Against Deep Ties

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines harbors a longtime grudge against the United States.
President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines harbors a longtime grudge against the United States. DAVID MAREUIL/REUTERS

MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who nurses a longtime grudge against the United States, has declared he wants “a separation” and on Wednesday added that he wants American troops out of his country in two years.

Speaking in Tokyo, Duterte said that he was willing to revoke the 2014 agreement letting the Pentagon use five Philippine military bases, a critical component of the Obama administration’s plan to bolster US influence in Asia.

“I want them out,” he said of the US troops in his country.

While his threats have tapped a deep strain of resentment among Filipinos who feel as if they are treated like a second-class ally, the country’s deep cultural, economic, and military ties to the United States make it unlikely that they will follow him on the path to divorce.

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Especially not, as Duterte suggested in Beijing last week, all the way to China.

“Practically every family here has a relative in the United States,” said Roilo Golez, who served as national security adviser to former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. “They don’t dream of going to China and living there.”

The close relationship between Philippines and the United States, while complicated and at times acrimonious, has existed for more than a century, and the Philippines has been the United States’ closest ally in the region for 70 years.

Duterte’s vow to upend that kinship has frustrated even some of his supporters.

“I voted for him, but I’m not sure what he is doing right now,” said Jess Custodio, 56, a bank executive in Manila. “It is baffling to me. It would tear out the heart of many Filipinos to separate.”

The bonds with the United States run deep and wide. About 4 million Filipinos and Filipino-Americans live in the United States, and the money they send home to relatives is a mainstay of the Philippine economy.

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Another major sector of the economy — call centers, largely serving US companies — employs more than 1 million Filipinos. Partly because of the high level of English spoken in the Philippines, the industry is one of its fastest-growing segments.

American movies, music, fashion, and consumer goods are popular here. In an earlier era, Filipinos working in the United States would send boxes filled with hard-to-get American food and gifts. Now, shopping malls are packed with American-brand clothes, cosmetics, appliances, foods, and other products.

The Filipino public’s support extends to the military, where there is considerable backing for the partnership with the United States, especially the assistance that US forces have provided in combating extremists in the southern Philippines.

“President Duterte risks creating a lethal combination of adversaries if he moves to truncate the alliance with the United States,” said Ernest Z. Bower, the president of the consulting firm BowerGroupAsia. “He would alienate his military, which wants the help of the United States.”