Manila clarifies Duterte’s talk of US ‘separation’
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.