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Rodrigo Duterte

As Duterte cosies up to China, US says Philippine leader is sparking distress around the world

The most senior US diplomat for Asia made the comments during a visit to Manila

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 October, 2016, 4:04pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2016, 12:11am

America’s top diplomat for Asia said Monday that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial remarks and a “real climate of uncertainty” about his government’s intentions have sparked distress in the US and other countries.

Daniel Russel, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said he also relayed to Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. international concern over continuing killings under Duterte’s crackdown against illegal drugs.

Russel’s visit to the Philippines, part of a three-nation trip to Southeast Asia, comes amid increasing uncertainty about Washington’s treaty alliance with Manila. The brash Duterte, who took office on June 30, has displayed antagonism toward America, declaring his desire to scale back military engagements with the US and telling President Barack Obama “to go to hell”.

Separately, Duterte said Monday on the eve of his visit to Japan that he has no plan to forge a military alliance with any country other than the United States, downplaying concerns over his veering toward China.

“The alliances are alive, it is there,” Duterte said, referring to the Philippines’ longest standing ally, the United States. “There should be no worry about changes of alliances. I do not need to have alliances with other nations.”

Duterte added that he only plans to have an “alliance of trade and commerce” with China.

Duterte’s administration, however, has not formalised his public declarations to remove US counterterrorism forces from the volatile southern Philippines and stop large-scale joint exercises involving American forces, creating confusion among even his Cabinet officials.

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In a major walk-around, Duterte sparked diplomatic alarm when he announced during a state visit to Beijing last week his “separation” with the United States. Upon returning home the day after his stunning remarks, Duterte said he did not mean he was severing diplomatic ties with Washington but only wanted to end a foreign policy that’s overly oriented toward the US.

Duterte’s spokesman Ernesto Abella, in a statement Friday, said Duterte’s remarks were merely “a restatement of his position on charting an independent foreign policy as provided in the Philippine Constitution that he has repeatedly made in domestic speeches.”

“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 neighbours with shared aspirations in the spirit of mutual respect, support and cooperation.”

The United States is one of the Philippines’ largest trading partners and its closest security ally for about 70 years.

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“I’ve pointed out to Secretary Yasay that the succession of controversial statements, comments and a real climate of uncertainty about the Philippines’ intentions has created consternation in a number of countries, not only in mine,” Russel told reporters Monday in Manila after a meeting with Yasay that went overtime.

The unease, Russel said, was also palpable “not only among governments, but also ... in other communities, in the expat Filipino community, in corporation board rooms as well.”

The acid-tongued Philippine leader has become famous for his profane outbursts, and has branded Pope Francis and the US ambassador to Manila “sons of whores”. Both the European Union and UN chief Ban Ki-moon are also on the growing list of those he has insulted.

“This is not a positive trend,” he said, adding that the US remains committed to continuing a solid alliance with and providing assistance to the Philippines, including in fighting the drug menace.

Coinciding with Russel’s visit, the US military turned over a refurbished C-130T cargo plane Monday as part of Washington’s effort to help modernise the underfunded Philippine military, which has struggled to deal with Muslim and communist insurgencies and natural disasters.

The outgoing US Ambassador Philip Goldberg said at the turnover ceremony that the US was trying to clarify Duterte’s remarks in relation to existing policies, including their impact on planned joint military exercises. Despite the concerns, Goldberg said the US rebalance to Asia would proceed.

“It’s a historical relationship, it has its ups and downs,” Goldberg said. While he remains optimistic, Goldberg said “some of the language we’ve heard is inconsistent with that friendship”.

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Asked if joint combat exercises with the Americans would continue despite Duterte’s declared opposition to them, Yasay could not give a categorical answer to reporters.

Duterte wanted the joint combat drills to enable the Philippines “to be self-reliant in our defensive requirements,” Yasay said. “If this will not be achieved, (Duterte) said then, there’s no purpose of proceeding with these.”

Patrolling the China-held Scarborough Shoal with the US Navy, for example, can send a signal that it’s a deterrent against bad Chinese intentions. “It has precisely resulted in both parties digging in and made a peaceful resolution of the disputes even farthest from achieving,” Yasay said.

Russel said that while Washington welcomes the relaxation of tensions between Manila and Beijing under Duterte, the rapprochement should not come at the expense of the US or other nations.

“It’s a mistake to think that improved relations between Manila and Beijing somehow come at the expense of the United States,” he said.

“This should be addition and not subtraction.”

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Even as Duterte warmed up to China, Beijing also appeared eager to distance itself from his anti-US rhetoric last week. A commentary run by Xinhua on Thursday said the rekindling of ties between Manila and Beijing carried “no meaning” for the Philippine-US alliance.

“The Chinese government never attempts to build up its ties with other countries on condition that these nations have to sacrifice their partnership with any third party,” it said.

Additional reporting by Kyodo and Bloomberg