US Working to Retain Close Defense Ties to Philippines

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reviews an honor guard with his Vietnamese counterpart Tran Dai Quang during a welcome ceremony at the presidential palace in Hanoi, Vietnam, Sept. 29, 2016. (Hoang Dinh Nam/Pool Photo via AP)
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reviews an honor guard with his Vietnamese counterpart Tran Dai Quang during a welcome ceremony at the presidential palace in Hanoi, Vietnam, Sept. 29, 2016. (Hoang Dinh Nam/Pool Photo via AP)

The U.S. has confidence in maintaining strong defense ties with the Philippines despite threats to end joint military exercises by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and his cozying up to China, a top U.S. diplomat for the region said Wednesday.

"We're working through this. We've been through a lot worse" in the history of U.S.-Philippines relations, said Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

"I think the operative adjective is 'colorful,' " Russel said in describing Duterte's recent outbursts in which he has charged that the Philippines has been shortchanged as the U.S. seeks to rebalance forces to the Pacific to counter the rise of China.

At an Asian summit last month, Duterte, the former populist mayor of Davao City, said the U.S. "can go to hell" and used a slur against President Barack Obama that loosely translated as "son of a whore."

Obama brushed off the insult, calling Duterte a "colorful guy."

Russel said he is working closely with Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, and Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, to ensure that military relations and coordination with the Philippines continue.

At a breakfast with defense reporters, Russel said, "There's a lot of noise, a lot of stray voltage, in the media" over Duterte's remarks, but the U.S. is moving in a "deliberate and thoughtful way" to keep relations on an even keel.

If the government of the Philippines formally proposes changes to the military-to-military relationship, "we'll deal with it," he said.

"The roots run really deep" in U.S. relations with the Philippines, Russel said, but the Washington-Manila relationship has been complex. The Philippines was a U.S. territory from 1898 until after World War II, when Philippines independence was recognized. Since then, ties between the armed forces of the two nations have often been closer that those between the U.S. and Philippines governments.

In 2014, the U.S. and the Philippines signed a 10-year accord allowing the U.S. to establish military bases in the Philippines, more than 20 years after the huge U.S. bases at Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base were ordered closed during a surge of nationalism in the Philippines.

Last week, Duterte threatened to scrap the defense agreement with the U.S. and forge a strategic alliance with China. However, Duterte on Tuesday appeared to change course. He said the agreement would stay in effect, but added that it benefited only the U.S.

Duterte's remarks Tuesday came on the same day that U.S. Marines and their counterparts from the Philippines ended a military exercise a day early. Duterte has warned that the joint exercise could be the last involving the two nations.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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