The U.S. government and the Manila elite are pretty interested in hyping the naval confrontation with the PRC, while going all "bygones" on the bloody, corrupting, ongoing, and (for some elite Filipinos empowering and enriching) U.S. deep penetration of the Philippines' political and security regimes.
Duterte upsets this script, because his political career has been spent on Mindanao and he's been exposed to the pointy, crappy end of the U.S. military spear for over a decade.
I wrote about Duterte's direct, unhappy experience with U.S. milsec shenanigans in the matter of bomb-building US spook Michael Meiring at Asia Times.
I also put up a long piece on China Matters that discussed the fact that Meiring is just one of many old and current skeletons ready to come clattering out of the closet if Duterte diverts the political discourse away from "US and Philippines: Shoulder to Shoulder Against China in the SCS!" to an examination of serial U.S. meddling in the Philippines in the name of security, counterinsurgency, and anti-terror over the last 115 years.
Duterte’s an interesting cat. Nicknamed The Punisher, he’s a horndog, bully, a bruiser, and an enthusiastic vigilante.
The US media seems to have pigeonholed him as “The Philippines’ Donald Trump with Death Squads,” an indication of instinctive unease with a populist political force that doesn’t declare allegiance to the modern liberal playbook—and who condoned death squads in his city.
He’s also a lawyer, albeit one who shot a fellow student and was therefore not allowed to march at his graduation.
Duterte won the presidential election despite the open opposition of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. He alleges he was abused by a Jesuit priest at school and has a combative relationship with the Catholic Church, as in "f*ck the Pope" combative.
His local political base is on Mindanao, which is about 20% Muslim. He was mayor of Davao City, whose population of 1.4 million makes it the biggest city on Mindanao and the fourth-largest in the Philippines.
Mindanao has a lot of history--a lot of bad, bloody, history--involving the United States, history that has shaped Duterte's attitude toward the U.S.
In many ways, Mindanao provides an alternate narrative to the largely Roman Catholic post-colonial elite that dominates Philippines political discourse.
Spanish subjugation of the Philippines involved forced conversion to Catholicism in a chain of Muslim sultanates that once ran all the way up from the Straits of Malacca to modern Manila.
Mindanao, under the Sultan of Sulu, proved less tractable.
Much less tractable.
I think the struggle to reduce Mindanao, first by the Spanish, then by the Americans, and now by the central government in Manila must rate as the lengthiest insurrection in world history, spanning 400 years. Resistance often included a significant Chinese component. I highly recommend the encyclopedic Wikipedia entry on the Spanish-Moro conflict to interested readers.
With the American victory in 1898, the Philippines became America's stepping stone to empire (and China; the U.S. presence in the Philippines was seen as a key leverage point for the pivot, excuse me, the "Open Door" policy that would properly integrate China into the family of nations).
And the footprint lay heaviest in Mindanao, which bitterly resisted the United States in the Moro War of 1898-1902 (officially; President Roosevelt declared "Mission Accomplished" in 1902 but unrest and massacre continued well beyond that punctuation point).
Subjugating the Moro was the brutal colonial-racist yin that came with the triumphant yang of superseding Spain as a burgeoning imperial power.
And modern war, represented by the first U.S. overseas counterinsurgency operation, against the Moro on Mindanao and other islands of the Philippines' Islamic South.
The US Army, initially at sea in an Asian land and facing an enemy quite different from the professional, surrender-friendly units it had encountered during the Mexican and Civil Wars, adapted by bringing in the genocidal, total-war tactics practiced against the Native Americans inside the continental U.S. and developing a new set of best practices.
New ideas about killing also emerged.
The Moro rebellion exploded the traditional U.S. idea of warfare, the roles of soldiers and noncombatants, and what could and should not be done; and a racial/genocidal narrative arose to replace it with invincible and startling speed.
...even as the U.S. Army started to get a grip on the propaganda levers it needed to yank to sell or at least sustain a long, brutal, and not terribly popular overseas war of choice.
The press got involved in one of those new frontier challenges: how the military should go about extracting intelligence from uncooperative detainees.
It turns out that, based on claims of military necessity, by simultaneously stripping detainees of the protections afforded civilian prisoners and military detainees, and through a dose of callous racism, the answer was Torture!
Wikipedia states the U.S. adopted an ongoing Spanish practice in the Philippines, though it should be said that water torture was practiced inside the U.S earlier in the 19th century and is, apparently, one of those near-universal exercises in creating human misery.
The issue of waterboarding in the Philippines introduced a round of public debate, disquiet, and public wristlapping that will be familiar to students of the Guantanamo issue. An American officer was courtmartialed for waterboarding, given a one-month suspended sentence and a $50 fine.
Disquiet about the lengthy, brutal, and distant war entered into media and public attitudes.
Then, in 1969, dozens of Moro soldiers in the Armed Forces of the Philippines were killed at a base on Corregidor in the Jabidah Massacre, an incident that has been successfully hushed up to the point nobody knows what happened.
Even the Sultanate of Sulu is trying for a comeback:
"Moro" appears to be one of the modern ethnic identities that is evoked and strengthened by government oppression of stateless polities in a dynamic similar to that of the Uyghurs, Tibetans, Balochs, and the Kurds.
All in all, a thoughtful perspective on coexistence and reconciliation in a difficult and complicated neighborhood--made more difficult and complicated by a century of massacre and meddling by the US and Manila-- that Duterte has been governing for a couple decades with considerable success.
How 'bout that.
Having said that, I would not take that “Safest City in the World” designation to the bank. Apparently an on-line poll was successfully freep'd with 800 responses.