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US-Philippines alliance won't end because of Duterte's remarks, say analysts

Filipino President Roberto Duterte attending the 2016 September meeting of the ASEAN. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

The Philippines and the United States are this weekstaging joint military drills in South East Asia, just a few days after President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to eject American forces from the Southeast Asian nation. Duterte has sustained a verbal assault on the United States since he took office on June 30 in response to criticism of his deadly war on drugs. But analysts say this may be just talk.

Duterte had some harsh comments against the US since he took office.

Earlier this week, he told US President Barack Obama to "go to hell" and warned there may come a time when he would completely break the two nations' alliance... including a mutual defence pact.

Duterte has also insulted the EU and the UN, all of which criticised his war against drugs that has killed 3000 people so far.

The move has surprised many, given the two countries' long and complicated, relationship. The Philippines is a former US colony and has strong links with the US.

"When the US gave the Philippines independence there was no war but an alliance [between the two countries]", says Malcolm Cook, a researcher with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. "Many nationalist Filippinos see that the Philippines was never independent from the US. The Philippines military has been almost dependent on US support for its external defence."

Aries Arugay, a political analyst with the University of the Philippines-Diliman, says this is just rethoric:

"Rodrigo Duterte is not the first head of state to have delivered acerbic remarks; what is different is that it's coming from the Philippines," he explains. "The Philippines is very close, very intimate, to the United States to the point that I don't think remaks of one member of government, even if it is the head, could radically alter the relationship."

Coincidently, the Filipino defense minister this Wednesday said Dueterte might be misinformed in calling for an end to the military joint programs.

Meanwhile, the Filipino President has repeatedly said he was seeking a rapprochement with China.

"[Duterte] is planning to visit China in two weeks and at the moment there's no chance that he could visit the US," says Malcolm Cook. "I think Duterte really believes his country would be better off with a weaker relationship with the US and a greater cooperation with China would help that process.

But experts doubt it will happen soon.

Military ties between the Philippines and the United States had grown stronger in recent years partly in response to China's expanding presence in the strategically vital South China Sea.

So far, the US doesn't seem too worried about Duerte's remarks, which they have so far played down. The White House said on Tuesday it had not received any formal communications from Duterte's government about changing the relationship.

"There are millions of Filipinos who are also American voters. So I think the candidates will try not to affect negatively the opinion of those voters," says Aries Arugay. "Going down the line, I think President Duterte will have to maybe moderate his remarks a bit. For example if his popularity goes down, given that the US is very popular among Filipinos, it might not work in his favour".

For the military, it's business as usual: About 2000 American and Filipino troops are now taking part in eight-day war games. In speeches to launch the exercises in Manila, military chiefs from both sides acted as if relations were normal.