16 October 2018
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (left) and Chinese leader Xi Jinping shake hands in Beijng on Thursday. Photo: Reuters
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (left) and Chinese leader Xi Jinping shake hands in Beijng on Thursday. Photo: Reuters

What exactly do you mean by ‘separation’? US to ask Duterte

The United States said it will seek an explanation from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte after he announced his “separation” from the US on Thursday.

Duterte made his comments in Beijing, where he is visiting with at least 200 business people to pave the way for what he calls a new commercial alliance as relations with longtime ally Washington deteriorate, Reuters reports.

The US State Department said it was “baffled” by Duterte’s comments and would seek an explanation when Daniel Russel, the top US diplomat for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, visits Manila this weekend, according to the news agency.

“We are going to be seeking an explanation of exactly what the president meant when he talked about separation from the US,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said.

“It’s not clear to us exactly what that means in all its ramifications.”

Speaking at a business forum in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing attended by Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, Duterte said: “In this venue, your honors, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States.”

“Both in military, not maybe social, but economics also. America has lost.”

Duterte’s efforts to engage China marks a reversal in foreign policy since the 71-year-old former mayor took office on June 30.

During the visit, China and the Philippines agreed to resolve their South China Sea dispute through talks, months after a tribunal in the Hague ruled that Beijing did not have historic rights to the South China Sea in a case brought by the previous administration in Manila.

His trade secretary, Ramon Lopez, said US$13.5 billion in deals would be signed during the China trip.

“I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to [President Vladimir] Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world – China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way,” Duterte told Chinese and Filipino business people.

In Washington, both the State Department and the White House portrayed Duterte’s comments as being at odds with the close, long-standing alliance between the two countries.

They said Washington would welcome closer ties between Beijing and Manila, however.

“The US-Philippine alliance is built on a 70-year history, rich people to people ties and a long list of shared security concerns,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters, noting that the administration has not received any request from Filipino officials to alter bilateral cooperation.

A few hours after Duterte’s speech, his top economic policymakers released a statement saying that, while Asian economic integration was “long overdue”, that did not mean the Philippines was turning its back on the West.

“We will maintain relations with the West but we desire stronger integration with our neighbors,” said Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez and Economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia in a joint statement. “We share the culture and a better understanding with our region.”

On Wednesday, to the cheers of hundreds of Filipinos in Beijing, Duterte said Philippine foreign policy was veering towards China.

“I will not go to America anymore. We will just be insulted there,” Duterte said. “So time to say goodbye my friend.”

Duterte’s abrupt pivot from Washington to Beijing is unlikely to be universally popular at home, however.

On Tuesday an opinion poll showed Filipinos still trust the United States far more than China.

The Philippine leader’s latest outburst threatens to further undermine President Barack Obama’s faltering “pivot” to Asia as a counterbalance to China’s growing assertiveness, Reuters said.

Potentially at stake is the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, reached under Duterte’s predecessor, allowing the US to rotate ships, aircraft, and personnel through five Philippines bases, an arrangement seen as crucial to projecting U.S. military power on China’s doorstep.

Mindful of Duterte’s volatile nature, the Obama administration has trod carefully so far, seeking to avoid provoking him even as it chides him over his deadly war on drugs, US officials say.

One US official, who did not want to be identified, said there had been an active internal debate in recent months on how far to go in criticizing Duterte’s government on human rights and that the measured tone adopted was not as strong as some aides would have liked.

US attempts to raise questions about Duterte’s campaign against drugs, in which more than 3,000 people have been killed since he took office in June, have drawn angry denunciations by Duterte. He has derided Obama as a “a son of bitch” and said he should “go to hell.”

“It doesn’t seem to help to say anything because the minute you say something, he just lets loose his barrage of obscenities,” said Murray Hiebert, deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“I think for the US to just blast him constantly is probably not very effective.”

There is a suspicion in Washington that Duterte could swing back to the United States – if he decides it suits his interests.

“There is no question that Duterte is … trying to play the well-worn game of playing us off against the Chinese,” another US official said, on condition of anonymity.

But US officials say that despite his words the Philippines has not yet canceled military exercises or formally requested any tangible change in the security relationship.

Kurt Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asia under Obama who may have an administration role should Hillary Clinton win the US election, has been among those urging a tougher line on the human rights issue.

“What’s happening in the Philippines is starting to raise larger questions and concern,” he said.

“This idea, that ‘No, no, we’ll ignore this and maintain quietly our military and strategic operational activities,’ [I] think is going to be difficult.”

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