US still bullish on ties with PH
WASHINGTON—The historic alliance between the United States and the Philippines remains “ironclad” despite recent differences, Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday, alluding to the anti-American rhetoric of populist President Duterte.
“The United States continues to place high value on the close ties that exist between our countries,” Kerry said during a swearing-in ceremony for the new US ambassador to Manila, the Korean-born diplomat Sung Kim. “We continue to recognize our ironclad commitment to the sovereignty, independence and security of the Philippines.”
In August, Mr. Duterte said that Kim’s predecessor in Manila, Philip Goldberg, was a “son of a bitch,” a comment that prompted the State Department to demand an official explanation.
President Duterte, who accused Goldberg of meddling in Philippine elections, then issued a stream of insults toward the former colonial power, going so far as to refer to President Barack Obama as a “son of a whore.”
The fiery Filipino leader later said his comment was “nothing personal” and that he regretted that it had caused such controversy.
But Kerry, who met with Mr. Duterte in Manila in late July and said he hopes to return there before the Obama presidency ends in January, struck a diplomatic tone in his remarks Thursday.
“I am confident about the future of our bilateral relationship, notwithstanding the difference here or there about one thing or another,” he said. “I am absolutely confident about the ties between our peoples.”
Facing the extraordinary insults of the Philippine president, American diplomats have been wary of adding fuel to the fire.
“Democratic elections bring change and we must all have the wisdom to recognize and to adjust to that change,” Kerry said.
He added that “the logic of our alliance” built around a military partnership forged after World War II and cemented by a mutual defense treaty in 1951 remained “as compelling today” as it had ever been.
Until President Duterte came to power in June, Manila was one of the closest US allies in Asia, and was viewed as a vital link in the political “pivot” or “rebalancing” of US policy toward the Asia-Pacific region under Obama.
But late last month the Filipino leader announced his country’s “separation” from the United States and called for an end within two years to the presence of “foreign military troops,” a clear reference to American forces.
He later struck a more conciliatory tone, saying there would be no “severance of ties” with Washington, though he added that Manila would pursue a more independent line in foreign affairs while improving its ties to Beijing.
Until the early 1990s, when the Manila government ordered them out, the United States kept thousands of troops at major bases in the Philippines.
But months before President Duterte took office, Washington and Manila had announced plans for stepped-up security cooperation, with a “periodic presence” of American troops rotating through the area near the contested South China Sea.
Now, by cutting its own deal with China, the Philippines has suddenly changed the calculus, persuading the Chinese to let its fishermen operate around a disputed shoal but setting a worrying precedent for the US and its hopes of using regional alliances to preserve its place as the dominant power in the Pacific, analysts said.
What had been a fairly united front against China’s expanding maritime claims, stretching from Japan to Malaysia, now has a gap in the southeast corner where the Philippines lies, and could soon have another at the southwestern end, where Malaysia is making noises about shifting its alliances.
In both cases, resentment over what is seen as American interference in unrelated problems—a wave of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines and a huge financial scandal in Malaysia—may have contributed to the shift.
In Washington, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, has vowed to block any sale of assault rifles to the Philippine police, the first concrete American sanction.
The Beijing-Manila deal became apparent over the last week with reports that China had begun to allow Philippine fishermen to operate in contested waters in the South China Sea for the first time in four years.
The deal is an informal one, and so far has not been committed to writing, but it seems to give both parties what they want while sidestepping the more contentious issue of sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal.
China has not renounced its claim over the shoal, nor has the Philippines conceded China’s claim. But the Philippines’ main interest in the territory is fish, and it appears to have gotten that, a victory for Mr. Duterte and his popular defense of his country’s important fishing industry.
For China, the concession not only shifts an important American ally into its good graces but also brings it at least partly into compliance with a ruling by a tribunal in The Hague on the dispute.
In allowing Philippine fishermen back into the waters around the shoal, China, whether it admits as much or not, was complying with the part of the ruling that dealt with the blockade, according to Paul S. Reichler, the Philippines’ chief counsel in the case.
“China has suddenly decided to act in a manner that, in fact, complies with one aspect of the award,” he said. “It is a welcome step in the right direction.”
Because the tribunal did not consider the question of sovereign rights, he said, China is not out of bounds in continuing to claim sovereignty over the shoal, nor would the Philippines be, if it did the same.
And even if it portends a potential strategic loss, the agreement also helped reach a goal that the United States has long sought—lowering tensions in an important area of the South China Sea.
For Mr. Duterte, the deal caps a two-week period in which he has shown himself to be a “shrewd political animal,” as Bilahari Kausikan, the Singaporean ambassador, put it.
How long Mr. Duterte can ride out his good relations with China and keep up his threats against the United States is an open question. —NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE
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