Despite Separation, US and Philippines may not 'Divorce'
TOKYO -- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has announced a separation from the United States. Divorce, however, is far from certain.
The new Philippine leader sounded like a spouse snuggling up to a new lover while taking jabs at an estranged mate as he made his first trip to China, where leaders lavished him with trade deals and loans, loudly applauded his shift away from Washington and laughed at his jokes at U.S. expense.
"Americans are loud, sometimes rowdy. Their larynx is not adjusted to civility," Duterte said while speaking before China's elite at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, according to a video broadcast by Rappler, a Philippine news site.
The new Philippine leader already has said he is ending joint military exercises with the U.S. and talked Thursday about forming an alliance with China that could include Russia.
"I realign myself in your ideological flow and maybe I would also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world - China, Philippines, Russia," Duterte said.
But afterward, his cabinet officials were in damage-control mode, offering reassurances that trade and economic ties with the U.S. would continue.
Trade Minister Ramon Lopez went so far as to say that "separation" doesn't really mean breaking up.
"Let me clarify. The president did not talk about separation," Lopez told CNN Philippines in Beijing. Instead, he said the Philippines was "breaking being too much dependent on one side."
Duterte's spokesman, Ernesto Abella, said the president's announcement was a "restatement" on his bid to chart an independent foreign policy.
Duterte wanted to "separate the nation from dependence on the U.S. and the West and rebalance economic and military relations with Asian neighbors" like China, Japan and South Korea, Abella said in a statement.
So it remains unclear just how Duterte's rhetoric will affect the U.S.-Philippine alliance, and beyond that, the security balance in a region where tensions over territorial claims continue to simmer.
Making his first foreign trip, Duterte was able to leave behind criticism from the U.S. and the U.N. about the extrajudicial killings in his bloody drug war, which has left more than 3,400 dead. China made statements supporting the drug war and Duterte's policing efforts.
And, in turn, he was a good guest, not taking China to task for its aggressive buildup in the South China Sea, even though he has an international tribunal ruling in his favor over disputed reefs and islands.
Duterte has repeatedly insulted President Barack Obama and derided U.S. aid, including military hardware, as hand-me-downs while railing against what he sees as interference by the former colonial power. In China, he said he was undertaking a "separation" from the U.S.
If Duterte follows up on his threats, the U.S. could lose access to Philippine bases, which formed the core of a bilateral agreement struck in 2014 and more recently approved by the Philippine supreme court.
"The U.S. military presence can still be maintained, but the rotational presence would have been a much more powerful foundation to respond to contingencies," said Carlyle Thayer, a regional security consultant and professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales in Australia. "The U.S. loses a little bit of that, but its prestige is undermined by having the president of the Philippines make these comments."
Duterte told his Chinese audience during his visit that it was "time to say goodbye" to America, but didn't explicitly say he would end the U.S.-Philippine security alliance, which requires the U.S. to defend the Philippines if attacked.
The decision to end a treaty is "completely within the discretion of the president," Pacifico Agabin, a constitutional expert and former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Law, told Reuters earlier this year.
However, moving that far could affect the leverage he is using to move toward China, and possibly Russia.
It could also risk his domestic policy-driven popularity.
Only 22 percent of respondents to the Philippine Social Weather Survey in September said they trusted China, while 66 percent said they had "much trust" in the United States.
Duterte may be betting that perceived economic gains will change public opinion.
Philippine statements said the two sides had agreed to $13.5 billion in trade deals and loans, though they did not provide details on how far any deals were from being implemented.
Some question whether continued attacks on the U.S. will eventually hurt him, especially after the honeymoon period Philippine presidents typically enjoy after an election ends.
"People used to find his language humorous, but now people are not finding it funny anymore," said Babe Romualdez, an opinion columnist for The Philippine Star who supports close U.S. ties. "There's a mood change in many of the people in business and in the higher political echelons of society."
Duterte heads to Tokyo next week to meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and cabinet officials. He maintains a good relationship with Japan, which has supplied the Philippines with coastal patrol boats and stayed away from criticizing his human rights record.
Japan will act as de facto mediator between Duterte and United States, said Naoji Shibata, professor of international studies at Kindai University and former Asahi Shimbun Manila bureau chief.
"What Prime Minister Abe is aiming for is to pull him back from China once again," Shibata said.
Meanwhile, Daniel Russel, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, will meet with officials in Manila beginning Saturday, where he will seek clarification on Duterte's calls for a separation.
Stars and Stripes reporters Wyatt Olson and Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.
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