Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s shock “separation” from the US has thrown Philippine foreign policy into confusion, with the Americans saying they are baffled and some of his top aides contradicting him.
The firebrand leader rarely lets a day pass without taunting or abusing the US, but his latest comments, made on Thursday during a state visit to Beijing, were the strongest signal he wants to torpedo a 70-year alliance in favor of China and Russia.
“I announce my separation from the United States,” Duterte said as he paused to soak up the applause from hundreds of Chinese businessmen in the audience. “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.”
Until Duterte took office on June 30, the Philippines had been one of the US’ most important and loyal allies in Asia, and a key to US President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to the region.
The Philippines had also been a bastion of democracy — albeit a chaotic and corrupt one — in Southeast Asia since shedding the dictatorship of former president Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
However, Duterte, who describes himself as a socialist and has close links with communists still waging a rebellion in the Philippines, has revealed a deep dislike of the US.
He has repeatedly branded Obama a “son of a whore,” and called on his countrymen to remember crimes committed by Americans when the Philippines was a colony of the US from 1898 to 1946.
Ignoring the thousands of US lives that were lost to liberate the Philippines from Japan during World War II, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid, Duterte has also told Filipinos that the US had done nothing for them.
He has said there will be no more joint US-Philippine patrols in the South China Sea, nor will there be any further joint military exercises with the US that see thousands of troops pass through the Philippines each year.
Duterte’s tirades are causing confusion in Washington, where officials have repeatedly said the Philippine government has not made any of his words official policy.
“I just want to say that obviously we’re aware of this rhetoric,” US Department of State spokesman John Kirby said on Thursday. “And we still hold that it is inexplicably at odds with the very close relationship that we have with the Filipino people, as well as the government there, on many different levels, not just from a security perspective.”
Kirby said the US government would seek an explanation on the “separation” remarks.
“It’s not clear to us exactly what that means in all its ramifications,” he said.
Kirby indicated Asian governments were also growing increasingly nervous about Duterte, who has been fiercely criticized in the West for a war on crime in which thousands of people have been killed.
“It isn’t just the United States who is baffled by this rhetoric. We have heard from many of our friends and partners in the region who are likewise confused about where this is going,” he said.
A frequent pattern following Duterte’s explosive remarks against the US, the crime war and other hot-button issues has been for his aides or Cabinet ministers to try to downplay, clarify or otherwise interpret them.
And within a few hours of Duterte’s separation remarks, his finance and economic planning secretaries released a joint statement saying the Philippines would not break ties with Western nations.
“We will maintain relations with the West but we desire stronger integration with our neighbors,” they said.
Philippine Secretary of Trade and Industry Ramon Lopez also said Manila would not break with the US.
“I guess this will be explained better by the people around the president,” Lopez told ABS-CBN television. “But what is clear to me, we’re basically continuing with those activities, but it’s just breaking the dependence with those countries.”
“In terms of economic [ties], we are not stopping trade, investment with America. The president specifically mentioned his desire to strengthen further the ties with China and the ASEAN region which we have been trading with for centuries,” Lopez told CNN Philippines in Beijing.
Marie Banaag, assistant secretary at the Philippine presidential communications office, urged the public to wait for guidelines before interpreting Duterte’s announcement.
“There is no rush for us to interpret the speech of the president as we have to wait for guidelines that would be coming from him, from the Department of Foreign Affairs, as soon as they come back,” she said.
Additional reporting by Reuters
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