US hopeful Philippine presidential successor will follow strategic path forged by Aquino over South China Sea

07 May, 2016/ South China Morning Post

The upcoming Philippine presidential election could cause some heartburn in Washington. The winner of Monday’s vote will be handmaiden to the most crucial US relationship in Southeast Asia, and the front runner has not inspired confidence with his casual threats to shoot criminals and by joking about the gang rape and killing of a foreign missionary.

The historically tumultuous relationship between the US and its former colony has thrived in recent years as the Philippines has turned to Washington for support against an assertive China. But there’s uncertainty about how the eventual election winner will navigate external relations during a period of high tensions with Beijing.

Front running candidate Rodrigo Duterte is known for his profanity-laden speeches and has been likened to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. He made international headlines last month when he said that an Australian missionary who was gang raped and killed during a 1989 prison siege was so beautiful that he “should have been the first” to assault her. The Australian and US ambassadors criticised that comment, and Duterte told them to shut up.

On Friday, incumbent President Benigno Aquino III, who cannot run for re-election, made a desperate call for the trailing candidates to ally against Duerte, whom he described as a threat to democracy. The veteran city mayor has earned the nickname “Duterte Harry”, after a Clint Eastwood character with little regard for rules. He faces allegations that death squads committed extrajudicial killings to clean up the southern city of Davao that he’s run for 22 years.

As with any foreign election, US officials are reluctant to comment in case they are accused of trying to influence the result. “We look forward to working with the next Philippine administration to build upon our strong and enduring relationship, whatever the outcome of elections may be,” said Katina

Adams, a State Department spokeswoman for East Asia.

Still, they’ll be hoping for a successor who will follow the strategic path forged by Aquino, who has doubled down on ties with Washington in the face of China’s aggressive pursuit of territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea.

On Aquino’s watch, the Philippines has agreed to opening up several of its military facilities in American forces – a quarter-century after nationalist sentiments forced the closure of US bases in the island nation. That’s an important boost to President Barack Obama’s push to expand America’s presence in the Asia-Pacific to counter China. Read more…

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