Reactions to Duterte's remarks on 'separating' from the US - In the Philippines

Senior aides seek to smooth over Rodrigo Duterte's remarks

Senior Filipino officials have sought to appease growing unease over President Rodrigo Duterte's brash declaration in Beijing of a military and economic "separation" from the United States, his nation's treaty ally since 1951.

Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said it was not meant "to renege on our treaties with our established allies, but an assertion that we are an independent and sovereign nation, now finding common ground with friendly neighbours".

Speaking to businessmen at the Great Hall of the People on Thursday, Mr Duterte said: "In this venue, your honours… I announce my separation from the United States… Both in military, not maybe social, but economics also. America has lost."

Trade Minister Ramon Lopez said the President "did not talk about separation. In terms of economic ties, we are not stopping trade, investment with America".

The US is the Philippines' third- largest trading partner, with annual trade amounting to US$16.5 billion (S$23 billion).

NERVOUS TIME FOR REGION

There is no question that South-east Asia is in for a period of nervousness as Mr Duterte goes about attempting to realign his state's decades-long umbilical links with Washington.

Economic Planning Minister Ernesto Pernia said "it is a rebalancing. It is not a separation". "For a long time, we have not taken very seriously our economic relations with China. This time, we feel we should really engage with China stronger."

Budget Minister Benjamin Diokno, meanwhile, said Manila's warming ties with Beijing do not mean its relationships with other countries are cooling.

There are about 3.4 million Filipinos in the US, remitting nearly US$10 billion back home annually. They make up the largest population of Filipino migrants.

About 1.2 million Filipinos work for US outsourcing companies.

Critics, analysts, politicians and social media pundits in Manila were mostly sceptical about Mr Duterte's declared alignment with China.

Former foreign minister Albert del Rosario said "the declared shift in foreign policy, casting aside a long- time, reliable ally to embrace an aggressive neighbour that vehemently rejects international law, is both unwise and incomprehensible".

Former Senate president Juan Ponce Enrile reminded Mr Duterte that only the Senate could terminate the US-Philippine Mutual Defence Treaty, in effect since 1951.

Social media users were more amused, as many of Mr Duterte's own supporters said they were not willing to replace their iPhones with Huawei cellphones, delete their Facebook accounts and use Weibo instead, or cancel their US travel plans, just because Mr Duterte wants closer ties with China.

"The Filipino people are largely pro-American… President Duterte is President, but he's not the king. He'll have to take public opinion into consideration," said political science professor Richard Javad Heydarian at De La Salle University.

This is not the first time that Mr Duterte's aides have had to walk back his controversial remarks.

When he threatened to take the Philippines out of the United Nations, his communications minister clarified hours later that Mr Duterte was just exaggerating.

Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana told a Senate committee that the President has a habit of making brash pronouncements without running them by his Cabinet first.

Mr Lorenzana said he was as surprised as anyone when he heard Mr Duterte declare he was ending military exercises and sea patrols between the Philippines and the US.

The President's anti-American broadsides stem from US criticism of his human rights record.

US President Barack Obama had expressed concern over the thousands of extrajudicial killings that blighted Mr Duterte's anti-crime drive. Mr Duterte's response was to tell him to "go to hell".

READ ST ASSOCIATE EDITOR

(GLOBAL AFFAIRS) RAVI VELLOOR'S COMMENTARY IN OPINION

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2016, with the headline 'Senior aides seek to smooth over Duterte's remarks'. Print Edition | Subscribe