MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine president is opposing an offer by the U.S. defense chief and other top American officials to buy F-16 fighter jets, saying such an acquisition would be “utterly useless” because his country needs lighter combat aircraft to fight insurgents.
President Rodrigo Duterte scoffed Thursday night at the offer he said was made in a letter by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, which came after the president was slammed by the U.S. for his deadly crackdown on illegal drugs.
After he took office in mid-2016, Duterte immediately took steps to revive once-frosty relations with China while often taking an antagonistic stance toward U.S. security policies. He had lashed out at former President Barack Obama, who raised concerns over human rights under Duterte. The Philippine leader, however, has cozied up to President Donald Trump.
During a televised speech in a military ceremony in southern Davao city, Duterte read what he said was the letter to him by the three U.S. Cabinet officials, who cited the long alliance between Washington and Manila and assured American support for Philippine efforts to modernize its military.
“We hope to partner in other significant defense procurement (for) our mutual benefit, including through the Lockheed Martin F-16 multi-role fighter platform and your attack helicopter platform among other U.S. systems,” Duterte quoted the letter as saying.
The Philippines, however, doesn’t need the F-16s “and yet they dangled (them) before us after they humiliated us,” Duterte said. “It would be utterly useless to buy it. But I need attack helicopters and small planes for the counterinsurgency.”
Duterte repeated his frustrations with the U.S., including the nondelivery of about 23,000 rifles, which the Philippine police sought to buy from an American supplier. The arms purchase got derailed after some U.S. legislators raised concern over Duterte’s police-led crackdown against illegal drugs, he said.
He also renewed his demand for the return of three church bells seized by American forces as war spoils from the Philippines more than a century ago. The two governments have discussed the return of the Balangiga bells, named for the Philippine village from which they were taken in the early 1900s.
"If they won't return the Balangiga bells, we have nothing to talk about," Duterte said.
Despite Duterte’s antagonism toward Washington, a Philippine security official said the government may buy combat utility helicopters from the U.S., among other countries, following the president’s order to cancel a multimillion-dollar deal to buy 16 helicopters from Canada.
Known for his impromptu decisions and public outbursts, Duterte ordered the cancellation of the deal to acquire the Bell 412EPI helicopters after the Canadian government decided to review the 12 billion peso (U.S. $224 million) contract due to concerns the Philippine military might use the utility helicopters in counterinsurgency assaults instead of just transporting troops and supplies.