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Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, Asia's 'Trump,' Eyes Closer China Ties

The 71-year-old's plans to reassess his country's close allegiance with the U.S. has caught the most attention outside of the Philippines.
Image: Rodrigo Duterte
New Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte takes the oath during the inauguration ceremony in Malacanang Palace on Thursday in Manila, Philippines.AP

BEIJING — The new leader of the Philippines is challenging longstanding alliances and taking on powerful vested interests — all the while using language more associated with a street fighter than a statesman.

Rodrigo Duterte, a firebrand who has drawn comparisons to Donald Trump for his coarse defiance of the traditional ruling class, was sworn in as president of U.S. ally on Thursday. He took over from President Benigno Aquino.

Image: President Rodrigo Duterte takes his oath
President Rodrigo Duterte takes his oath before Supreme Court Justice Bienvenido Reyes as his daughter Veronica holds a Bible during his inauguration at the Malacanang Palace in Manila on Thursday.Presidential Palace / Handout / via Reuters

However, the 71-year-old has vowed to reassess his country's close ties with Washington.

"I want everybody to know that we will be charting a course of our own," local television quoted him as saying on May 31. The Philippines "will not be dependent on America. And it will be a line that is not intended to please anybody but the Filipino interests.”

The former mayor of Davao City in southern Philippines promised to tell Americans "sorry" if they invite him to join U.S. aircraft carrier patrols in contested waters in the South China Sea, where the U.S. and its allies have been facing off against China.

Meanwhile, Duterte has signaled his readiness to expand economic ties with Beijing, citing a Chinese offer to build a railway project in the Philippines.

“Can you match the offer? Because if you cannot match the offer I will accept the goodwill of China,” he reportedly said during a June 21 speech in Davao.

China’s official media has given special attention to Duterte’s plan for a more “balanced diplomacy," as incoming Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. called it on Monday. This change in tact could result in the easing of maritime tensions in the South China Sea, according to analysts and Chinese state media.

China's state-run Global Times responded that economic cooperation can help promote “political dialogues ... and ease tensions in the territorial deadlock."

"Beijing can offer more investment and assistance to Manila," the article added.

Related: 'Trump' of Philippines Runs on Rape Jokes, Violent Vows

“We are willing to work together with the new Philippine government to this end,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said in response to NBC News question on greater economic cooperation with the Duterte government.

It isn't only Duterte's plans to recalibrate relationships with the Philippines' longstanding partners abroad that have caught the attention of observers.

In a possible sign of things to come, he called Pope Francis "son of a whore" after the pontiff's visit to the Philippines in January created traffic chaos. Duterte later apologized for the comment.

Image: Pope visits Philippines
Pope Francis waves to well-wishers in Manila, Philippines, on Jan. 15, 2015.FRANCIS R. MALASIG / EPA file

The Philippines is 80 percent Catholic, and Church leaders have traditionally been close to political ones.

“I go against the Church because its position is not realistic,” he said during a farewell speech in Davao City on June 27, noting that Catholic teachings were “written 3,000 years ago.”

Duterte has also taken on some of the Church's basic teachings, including its prohibition on birth control.

The new president said he will aggressively promote birth control and recommend that families limit themselves to three children, arguing that unrestrained births drive families deeper into poverty.

Government statistics shows that poor households bear more children at an average of 5.2 per mother compared to 1.9 children per woman in wealthy households.

At his exit ceremony in Davao, he jokingly threatened to cut off the penises of men who did not agree to use birth control.

The new president's pledges to get tough on crime have also raised eyebrows. Duterte said during the campaign that he would pardon himself for mass murder and kill any of his children if they were involved with drugs.

Related: Philippines' President-Elect Urges Public to Kill Drug Dealers

“I believe in retribution. Why? You should pay. When you kill someone, rape, you should die,” he said during his farewell speech on Monday, defending his plan to restore the death penalty.

Shortly after Duterte's election win, police launched an anti-drug crackdown under his name, leaving dozens of mostly poor drug-dealing suspects dead in gunfights with police or in mysterious circumstances.

And days before his swearing in, Duterte was threatening criminals with death if they wouldn't reform.

"If you destroy my country, I will kill you," he said in one recent speech.

Image: Supporters of Rodrigo Duterte
Supporters of Rodrigo Duterte took to the streets of Manila as he was sworn in on Thursday. Nicknamed "The Punisher," Duterte is the country's 16th president and will serve a six-year term.Jes Aznar / Getty Images

The Philippines abolished the death penalty in 2006 following fierce opposition to the punishment from the Catholic Church.

Human rights groups have expressed concerns about Duterte's plan to restore capital punishment and give police rewards for the extra-judicial killing of drug dealers. The incoming president said he would outbid the drug dealers wanting to assassinate him.

“If they put up 100 million pesos, I will give you 150 million [$3,195,300], slaughter them," the Philippine Inquirer newspaper quoted him as saying on June 24. "I will give you a promotion on the spot."

His brash style has been likened to that of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, although he detests the comparison and says the American billionaire is a bigot and he's not.