Manila clar­i­fies Duterte’s talk of US ‘sep­a­ra­tion’

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By CHEN WEIHUA in Washington and MO JINGXI in Beijing

Se­nior US diplo­mats have breathed a sigh of re­lief af­ter the Philippine govern­ment clar­i­fied what Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte called a “sep­a­ra­tion” from the United States.

US Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry tele­phoned his Philippine coun­ter­part, Sec­re­tary of For­eign Af­fairs Per­fecto Yasay, on Sun­day to con­sult on bi­lat­eral and re­gional mat­ters of mu­tual con­cerns, US State De­part­ment spokesman John Kirby said on Mon­day.

“The two for­eign min­is­ters dis­cussed re­cent chal­lenges af­fect­ing the re­la­tion­ship and noted that strong and sta­ble re­la­tions that we have en­joyed are im­por­tant for sus­tain­ing our rich peo­ple-to-peo­ple ties and our en­dur­ing se­cu­rity and eco­nomic in­ter­ests,” Kirby told the news daily brief­ing.

The phone call came af­ter Daniel Rus­sel, US as­sis­tant sec­re­tary for East Asian and Pa­cific af­fairs, ar­rived in Manila on Oct 22 to seek clar­i­fi­ca­tion from the Philippine side about Duterte’s re­cent comment.

Dur­ing his visit to China last week, Duterte an­nounced at a busi­ness fo­rum of a mil­i­tary and eco­nomic “sep­a­ra­tion” from the US. The mes­sage sent shock waves in the US. Duterte later clar­i­fied that he only meant a more in­de­pen­dent for­eign pol­icy and not “sev­er­ance of ties” with the US.

Duterte’s lat­est mes­sage has been de­scribed by the US news me­dia as Duterte’s back­track­ing on his state­ment in Beijing. In Manila, Rus­sel also said that “now Pres­i­dent Duterte al­ready walked back and ex­plained that comment about ‘sep­a­ra­tion’” with the US.

How­ever, Yasay said that the govern­ment is not back­track­ing on sep­a­rat­ing Philippine for­eign

The US re­mains a steady and trusted part­ner, and strong ally.”

Daniel Rus­sel, US as­sis­tant sec­re­tary for East Asian and Pa­cific af­fairs

pol­icy from the US. In an in­ter­view with CNN Philip­pines, he said the pres­i­dent’s in­tended mes­sage is that the Philip­pines is free­ing it­self from Amer­ica’s tight grip on many of its af­fairs.

There has been widespread feel­ing in the re­gion that the Philip­pines un­der pre­vi­ous Pres­i­dent Benigno Aquino III, had been used by the US govern­ment to ad­vance its re­bal­ance to Asia strat­egy to con­front China.

The US has since soft­ened its tone about the re­gion af­ter Duterte as­sumed of­fice on June 30 and in­di­cated his will­ing­ness to work and co­op­er­ate with China on a wide range of is­sues. He has pub­licly blasted the US govern­ment and Pres­i­dent Barack Obama for point­ing fin­gers at his war on drugs at home.

In Manila, Rus­sel sur­pris­ingly ex­pressed US sup­port for the war on drugs but con­tin­ued to voice con­cerns about the death toll. “The US re­mains a steady and trusted part­ner, and strong ally,” he said.

Rus­sel said it’s a mis­take to think that im­proved re­la­tions with China must come at the ex­pense of good re­la­tions with the US. “That’s not the way we think about it. It should be ad­di­tion, not sub­trac­tion,” said Rus­sel.

“We don’t want coun­tries to have to choose be­tween the US and China — but we do want coun­tries to be able to choose, to have choices, to have au­ton­omy … to make their own de­ci­sions in keep­ing with demo­cratic values and keep­ing with in­ter­na­tional law,” he said.

There had been no sign on Mon­day that Rus­sel, who will de­part Manila on Tues­day, will have a meet­ing with Duterte.

The warm­ing China-Philippine re­la­tion­ship has been re­garded by some in China and the US as a blow to Obama’s re­bal­ance to Asia strat­egy.

The strat­egy has been crit­i­cized for in­creas­ing ten­sion with China. The Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship (TPP), while signed by the 12 Pa­cific Rim na­tions, is now re­garded a long shot in get­ting rat­i­fied dur­ing the lame­duck ses­sion in Congress. Both pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates Don­ald Trump and Hil­lary Clin­ton op­pose TPP.

On Mon­day, the State De­part­ment an­nounced that Deputy Sec­re­tary of State Antony Blinken will travel to Beijing on Oct 29 to meet with Ex­ec­u­tive ViceFor­eign Min­is­ter Zhan Ye­sui to con­duct the third in­terim Strate­gic Se­cu­rity Di­a­logue, con­ti­n­ung talks on is­sues such as the Demo­cratic Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of Korea and mar­itime is­sues.

Thomas Chris­ten­son, a pro­fes­sor at Prince­ton University and a for­mer deputy as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of state for East Asian and Pa­cific af­fairs un­der the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, crit­i­cized the pub­lic diplo­macy of Obama’s re­bal­ance strat­egy and the zero-sum men­tal­ity in both coun­tries.

“When China does the right thing, you have to ap­plaud. And you can’t al­ways be look­ing to — look­ing like you’re push­ing back,” he said of the US re­sponse to China’s ini­tia­tives of the Asian In­fra­struc­ture In­vest­ment Bank and the Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive.

“This is what Duterte’s pre­de­ces­sor had done, but Duterte has re­al­ized that this does not help the Philip­pines and de­cided to make an ad­just­ment,” Su Hao, a pro­fes­sor of Asia-Pa­cific stud­ies at China For­eign Af­fairs University, said of Rus­sel’s com­ments.

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