The White House said Friday that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s announcement of his country’s “separation” from the US was “offensive,” as Duterte doubled down on his intent to turn away from Washington on foreign policy.
After White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday that Duterte’s comments were “creating unnecessary uncertainty in our relationship” and hadn’t been clarified, Duterte himself explained them in a way that will do little to ease US concerns or the sudden tensions between the allies of 70 years.
“It is not severance of ties,” Duterte said at a press conference Friday on his return from a state visit to China. “You say severance of ties, you cut the diplomatic relations. I cannot do that. I said separation — what I was really saying was separation of a foreign policy.”
The Philippines leader’s comments risk disrupting not just US ties to his country, but US ties to the larger Asia-Pacific, a region that President Barack Obama has made a central pillar of his foreign policy ambitions as he looks to anchor the US in the Pacific century.
Unusually sharp comments from Earnest earlier Friday about a Filipino official’s attempts to clarify Duterte’s “separation” remarks may reflect White House uneasiness about the implications of the country’s stance.
Philippine Trade Minister Ramon Lopez said Friday that his country would not stop trade and investment with the US. “The statement the President made maintains the relationship with the West. What we are saying is that there will be less dependence just on one side of the world,” Lopez told CNN.
Asked about Lopez’s comments, Earnest said “I’ve dubbed that person the Filipino Mike Pence,” a reference to the Republican vice presidential candidate, who has often walked back or cleaned up comments by GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Duterte had announced the “separation” from the US during a visit to Beijing Thursday, specifically citing both military and economic ties in a move that surprised the Obama administration, raised questions about the US role in the region and threatened a realignment of US relationships in Asia.
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“America has lost now,” Duterte said at a business forum Thursday during a four-day state visit to Beijing. “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world — China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.”
Duterte’s declaration is the latest indication that the Philippines’ president, just five months into his six-year term, intends to reshape his country’s ties to its closest ally by doubling down on his pivot away from the US and toward China.
Given the Philippines’ crucial importance to US foreign policy goals in Asia — including its military bases, a regional maritime security initiative and efforts to help smaller Asian countries resist pressure from the regional behemoth of China — Duterte’s clarification on Friday is not likely to provide much comfort.
“The key question is whether Duterte is going to rescind our access to our bases in the Philippines,” said Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
The Obama administration’s maritime security initiative with Southeast Asian countries, with a major role for the Philippines, is aimed in part at helping those countries resist Chinese pressure as Beijing aggressively pursues territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The loss of the Philippines bases would be “a significant blow,” said Manning, a former official at the State Department and National Intelligence Council.
“If the Philippines are out — and they’re in the thick of it — that starts to raise questions about our whole approach” to the region, he said.
An administration official said it still wasn’t clear what Duterte’s rhetoric would actually mean in practice, particularly since several senior voices in the Philippine government have walked back his comments — a pattern the White House has noted in recent weeks.
The official said the White House will seek more clarity and that they expect the subject to come up during a visit over the next few days by the State Department’s senior diplomat on Asia. Daniel Russel, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, heads to the Philippines Friday as part of a long-planned trip to meet with government officials and do youth outreach.
On Friday, Duterte joked that he couldn’t say who his favorite US presidential candidate was because it could affect “these splendid relations with the Americans.” Instead, he quipped that his “favorite hero is (Russian President Vladimir) Putin.”
Though the White House is trying to emphasize the positive aspects of the longstanding relationship with the Southeast Asian island country, Duterte’s comments about separation provoked a swift response from Washington on Thursday.
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State Department spokesman John Kirby said the US would seek an explanation for the President’s comments, which the US hadn’t known were coming.
He described them as “yet another string in some pretty strong rhetoric that we think, we believe is at odds with the kind of relationship that we have had and continue to have the Filipino people.”
Duterte’s stated break from the US comes on the heels of other anti-US moves and rhetoric.
He recently called for ending joint military drills with the US, in August he described the US ambassador as “a gay son of a whore,” and in September he dismissed President Barack Obama himself as a “son of a bitch” — in part a response to US criticism of his war on drugs, which killed 2,400 people in two months.
If Duterte is realigning his county with China on an economic and even military level, “that would have potentially fundamental implications for the future of the Philippines and Philippine-US relations,” according to Jamie Metzl, another Atlantic Council senior fellow.
The US and Philippines operate under a 1951 mutual defense treaty, which Duterte has said he doesn’t plan to abrogate. Metzl pointed out that doing so would require approval of the Philippine parliament, in a country with “one of the most pro-US and anti-Chinese populations in Asia.”
Senior US officials told CNN Duterte may have been grandstanding in China, but it’s not yet clear where he’s headed.
Duterte’s stance may be driven by a sense that the US presence in the Philippines diminishes his country’s standing, they said. He may also feel threatened by US questions about his approach to human rights and the drug war.
Sandy Pho, a senior program associate at the Wilson Center, agreed that Duterte resents US power in the Philippines.
“I think Duterte comes into the presidency with this mindset,” she said. But she also pointed to a perception in Asia that the US is bogged down in the Middle East.
“The US can’t focus” is the sense, she said, “so quite frankly, he’s hedging his bets, thinking an overreliance on the United States probably isn’t the best bet.”
Either way, the Obama administration realizes that the relationship it once had with Manila can no longer be taken for granted.
“He’s going to be difficult,” one official said.
In its initial response to Duterte’s announcement in China, the White House stressed the positive.
Emily Horne, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said that the “US-Philippines alliance is built on a 70-year history, rich people-to-people ties, including a vibrant Filipino-American diaspora, and a long list of shared security interests.” She also cited strong economic ties, including more than $4.7 billion in US foreign direct investment.
Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on October 11, the State Department’s Russel said that while there have been “ups and downs” between the two countries, the various links “keep us very closely tethered together.”
The US has no problem with the Philippines engaging with China, he added: “We don’t regard this as zero sum, but we value our relationship with the Philippines and we want to keep it on even keel.”
Obama has focused considerable diplomatic energy on the US relationship with Asia during his two terms, seeing greater engagement with the world’s fastest growing economies as a source of American jobs and exports.
The President’s “pivot” to Asia was also seen as a way to integrate China into an international order with rules that the US and Western allies have set — as opposed to rules Beijing might favor — on core issues like human rights, labor protections and the environment.
All the while, tensions between China and its smaller Asian neighbors over the resource-rich South China Sea have been escalating. The US has urged that these conflicts be solved through international institutions and multilateral talks, and backed Duterte’s predecessor when he took China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
The court ultimately rejected Beijing’s claims to the Spratly Islands, but in August, Duterte signaled that he’s willing to go along with China’s desire to ignore the ruling and have bilateral talks “within the year.”
The US held the Philippines as a colony from 1898 until 1946. Around a quarter-century ago, Manila’s leaders pushed to have US troops leave the country.
Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino, reversed course on a US security presence in his country in 2014 in the face of China’s regional muscle-flexing, signing an agreement that would place more ships in Philippine ports.
Kirby said that the US isn’t the only country taken aback by Duterte’s move.
“It isn’t just the United States who is baffled by this rhetoric,” Kirby said. “We have heard from many of our friends and partners in the region who are likewise confused about where this is going, and also, we believe, are trying to learn more on their own about what it portends.”