Duterte defuses separation ‘bomb’: Ties with US remain
President Rodrigo Duterte has clarified that the Philippines would not cut diplomatic ties with the United States, but merely pursuing a more inde-pendent foreign policy by pushing stronger relations with regional behemoth China.
Returning home Friday after a four-day state visit to China, President Duterte told reporters that what he meant was that he was moving for a “separation of a foreign policy” but not a parting of ways with traditional ally, the US, which hosts a vast number of Filipino migrants.
“You know, you have to take my words in the context of what I have been saying all along. It’s not severance of ties. When you say severance of ties, you cut the diplomatic relations. I cannot do that. Why? It’s to the best interest of my country that we maintain that relationship,” Mr. Duterte said in Davao City.
He said it was impossible to cut diplomatic ties with the US, where many Filipinos live.
“Why? Because the Filipinos in the United States will kill me,” Mr. Duterte said. Speaking in Beijing on Thursday, Mr. Duterte announced his “separation” from the US, both militarily and economically, to pave for a new commercial alliance with China.
Beijing has responded by agreeing to resolve a long festering South China Sea dispute bilaterally through the talks, and by pledging billions of dollars worth of trade deals.
Proclaiming that “America has lost,” Mr. Duterte sought to align himself with China and said Manila would henceforth be more dependent on Beijing.
The sudden shift in foreign policy caught many by surprise, with government spokespersons scrambling to interpret what he meant and its implications to regional security.
Japan, which Mr. Duterte is expected to visit next week, as well as Washington, were equally puzzled.
But President Duterte stressed on Friday that the country always took its cue from the US and it was high time the country took a different tack.
He said the government might terminate the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that allowed temporary basing rights and prepositioning of American military articles on local soil.
“But I would have to consult the military, the police and everybody because at the end of the day, it is all security,” Mr. Duterte said.
His spokesperson Ernesto Abella said the government would not turn its back on deals and treaties that have been agreed upon, but was only exploring new alliances.
“This is not an intent to renege on our treaties and agreements with our established allies but an assertion that we are an independent and sovereign nation, now finding common ground with friendly neighbors with shared aspirations in the spirit of mutual respect, support and cooperation,” Abella said.
But even before his trip to Beijing, Mr. Duterte has been issuing increasingly hostile statements against the US, with which the Philippines has a Mutual Defense Treaty.
He has hit out at the US government for airing concerns about the mounting death toll in his antidrug campaign, and has moved to stop joint patrols with the American naval forces in disputed waters. He has also said this month’s Philippine-US military exercises would be the last.
The Philippines was instead looking to expand bilateral and economic alliances with China and Russia, he said,
The White House responded to Mr. Duterte’s speech by saying there were “too many” conflicting statements coming from his office, but nonetheless welcomed the apparent about-face.
“Based on his extensive, colorful previous comments, there is greater clarity that we would like to get about the intent of President Duterte and his government,” White House spokesperson Josh Earnest told a press briefing in Washington.
“But based on what you’ve read me, that seems to be a change in tone that is more consistent with the seven decade-long alliance between the United States and the Philippines,” he said.
‘Rebalance’ to Asia
The US, Manila’s former colonial master, sees the Philippines as a key ally in its “rebalance” to Asia as it seeks to offset a rising China.
And is sees the President’s recent pronouncements as a “troubling rhetoric” that is “inexplicably at odds with the warm relationship that exists between” Filipinos and Americans, US embassy spokeperson Molly Koscina said.
‘Little brown brother’
Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. on Saturday insisted the country needed to shed off its “little brown brother” image, but stressed said cutting ties did not mean “a severance of relationship or terminating the special bond between our two nations.”
While he conceded that breaking away from the US “would not be in our best national interest,” he claimed it was “demanded in pursuing our independent foreign policy.”
“It implies breaking away from the debilitating mindset of dependency and subservience that have perpetuated our ‘little brown brother’ image to America, which has stunted our growth and advancement,” Yasay said.
Senator Richard Gordon for his part described Mr. Duterte as a “a very unorthodox President.”
“I don’t think he really meant it, I’m sure the President understands our national interest. He mentioned that. And I think he understands what he is doing,” Gordon told reporters. “Are the Americans listening? Yes. We got their attention. Is Japan listening? Is China listening? Yes.”
For her part Sen. Leila de Lima described as “insane” and “surreal” Mr. Duterte’s pronouncements.
“Cutting off military and economic ties is only a degree less worse than cutting diplomatic ties,” said De Lima, a known political nemesis of Mr. Duterte.
In his arrival speech, Mr. Duterte said the relationship with China was at a “new turning point” as the two countries were looking to resume long-stalled regular bilateral consultations to discuss key issues, including those concerning the South China Sea.
Mr. Duterte trumpeted the achievements of his trip, including $24 billion in financial commitments that are expected to create two million jobs for Filipinos.
“My state visit to China signaled a turning point in our shared history and showed that both countries are fully capable of working together for mutual beneficial cooperation even as we remain committed to settle disputes peacefully, in full adherence of international law,” Mr. Duterte said.
He said Chinese officials have agreed to fully resume regular bilateral consultations which were put on hold for several years as ties chilled following the South China Sea wrangling.
Mr. Duterte said both countries had also agreed to promote peace, freedom of navigation and overflights in the sea region, to prevent disputes from escalating.
“We also agreed to continue discussions on confidence-building measures, including a bilateral consultation mechanism to discuss immediate issues of concern in South China Sea,” he said.
Beijing had steadfastly refused to acknowledge an arbitration ruling in July that found in favor of the Philippines, which took China to court after a 2012 standoff at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal. The court had invalidated China’s claim.
Mr. Duterte said he brought up the issue of Filipinos’ fishing rights in Panatag Shoal, but declined to elaborate.
The President also said that during his China trip, the coast guards of the two countries agreed to cooperate to minimize incidents at sea. —WITH REPORTS FROM JEANETTE I. ANDRADE, JODEE A. AGONCILLO, VILLAMOR VISAYA JR., GERMELINA LACORTE, NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE, REUTERS, AFP AND AP
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