State Dept. wants explanation of Filipino ‘separation from US’

State Dept. wants explanation of Filipino ‘separation from US’

By Luke Vargas   
An online advertisement featuring an image of Rodrigo Duterte. Credit: Duterte Cayetano
An online advertisement featuring an image of Rodrigo Duterte. Credit: Duterte Cayetano

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte said Thursday that his country would separate from the United States and join with Russia and China in an alliance 'against the world.'

UNITED NATIONS – The U.S. is “seeking an explanation” of comments made Thursday by Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte in which he announced a “separation from the United States.”

“There are three of us against the world – China, Philippines and Russia,” Duterte said during a trip to Beijing. “I announce my separation from the United States, both in military but economics also.”

“There are three of us against the world – China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.”

It’s unclear exactly what those comments entail for the 70-year relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines, but the remarks are just the latest critical remarks by Duterte directed at Washington.

Duterte announced on Sept. 28 that this year’s joint military exercises with the United States would be his country’s last. Earlier that month he ordered U.S. special forces to leave the country, saying that the Philippines would never achieve peace so long as U.S. troops remained.

A handout photo from the office of President Duterte shows the president's arrival in China.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte arrives in Beijing, China Tuesday night for a four-day state visit. (Photo: Office of the President of the Philippines).

Duterte’s gamble isn’t without risks. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, 92 percent of Filipino respondents said they had a favorable view of the United States, the highest level of support among 10 Asia-Pacific nations surveyed.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said Duterte’s “separation” comments had left several Asian nations “baffled,” though he declined to cite which countries expressed that sentiment. He did note, however, that countries outside of ASEAN – the regional body representing 10 Southeast Asian countries – were among those disturbed by Duterte’s announced policy shift.

“We’re aware of this rhetoric, of course, and we still hold that it is inexplicably at odds with the very close relationship that we have with the Filipino people as well as the government there on many different levels,” Kirby told reporters Thursday.

Those comments suggest a belief, or at least hope, among the U.S. government that senior members of Duterte’s administration disagree with his recent actions.

Kirby conceded it’s “difficult to know” whether there’s dissension within Duterte’s cabinet, but he noted that “in recent weeks we’ve seen some of this bombastic rhetoric clarified or walked back after the fact.”

“All of that gives us reason to think that there’s a purpose in trying to get a better, deeper understanding of this,” he said.

On the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meetings last month, Filipino Minister of Foreign Affairs Perfecto Yasay Jr. reportedly told U.S. national security officials that Duterte would not initiate a hard break with Washington.

A long list of Duterte’s top officials and spokespeople also have attempted to walk back the president’s most controversial comments, but Thursday’s announced separation with the United States is already being accompanied by actions that make a return to normal relations seem increasingly remote.

Chinese President Xi Jinping said Thursday that China and the Philippines would be resuming bilateral talks over contested territory in the South China Sea, while Filipino Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez announced more than $13 billion in bilateral trade deals.

The United States has long warned claimants in the South China Sea dispute against engaging in bilateral discussions with Beijing, fearing that Chinese economic might would force individual countries to acquiesce to its demands.

Instead, Washington has helped build up regional support for ASEAN in the hopes that multilateral talks with China would give greater standing to the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.

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