OPINION | Mercurial and moody in Manila

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PHILIPPINE President Rodrigo Duterte last week announced the termination of a security pact that underpins the U.S.-Philippines alliance, and President Trump responded by celebrating potential savings for the American fisc. The good news is that this isn’t a popular decision in Manila or Washington, and there’s time to save the agreement.

The 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement facilitates the movement of U.S. troops and equipment into the Southeast Asian nation. This makes it possible for the countries to cooperate against terror threats and China’s encroachment on Philippines territory. The Pentagon was informed Monday evening last week, and a formal withdrawal is still months away.

Ending the decades-old agreement doesn’t mean the end of cooperation, as the countries are still tied through the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. But this would make it harder to conduct joint exercises and share intelligence. As Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday, it “would be a move in the wrong direction.” It would also be a gift to China, which is flexing its growing military muscle in the South China Sea. Beijing has stepped up its bullying of smaller neighbors, including the Philippines. The Chinese want the U.S. out of the Pacific.

The question is whether Mr. Duterte’s animus is insurmountable or a tactic to wring concessions out of Washington. He claimed this week that Mr. Trump tried to save the accord but “America is very rude.” Washington recently irked Mr. Duterte by rescinding a visa to a top adviser after the detention of a Filipino lawmaker critical of Mr. Duterte. The U.S. Senate last month condemned Manila for its violent war against drugs, which has claimed thousands of lives through extrajudicial killings.

Mr. Duterte is famously thin-skinned. He declined to attend a summit in Las Vegas next month with other Southeast Asian leaders and has signaled he has no interest in speaking with Mr. Trump.

“I’ve been noticing that those who’ve been criticizing the U.S. government policies have been given the preferential treatment by the U.S. government,” a Duterte spokesman said. “When they are being criticized, they tend to court you back.” This is the unfortunate result of Mr. Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy, particularly with American allies.

Most Filipinos still favor the relationship and like the U.S. A December survey showed 82 percent of Filipinos “satisfied” with Mr. Duterte, who has railed against the U.S since taking office in 2016. Yet a September poll showed 80 percent of Filipinos place “much trust” in the U.S., compared with 8 percent who have “little trust.” Compare that with 21 percent who trust China and 54 percent who don’t.

Mr. Duterte’s foreign minister has warned the Philippine Senate against terminating the agreement, and reportedly neither the Defense nor Foreign ministries were consulted about his withdrawal announcement. The Philippine legislature is looking for ways to stop the mercurial leader from following through.

If Mr. Duterte wants to poison the bilateral relationship, he probably can in the short term. But the U.S. should keep its eye on the future when a wiser Philippine leader will want a U.S. relationship to balance Chinese influence.

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