MANILA - Mr Daniel Russel, the most senior US diplomat for Asia, said on Monday (Oct 24) President Rodrigo Duterte’s brash foreign policy statements were creating “consternation” in the US and other nations, but that deep ties between Manila and Washington are providing stability.
“The succession of controversial statements and comments, and a real climate of uncertainty about the Philippines’ intentions has created consternation in a number of countries, not only in mine,” Mr Russel, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said shortly after meeting Philippine Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay.
Mr Yasay later told reporters Mr Russel “did not express concern in the manner you’re suggesting, or that he is worried. He wanted clarification, and I clarified" President Rodrigo Duterte’s stand.
Mr Russel is in Manila amid confusion over Mr Duterte’s foreign policy.
During his four-day state visit to China last week, the Philippines’ 71-year-old President declared a “separation” with the US, his nation’s treaty ally since 1951, and a realignment with China, and even Russia.
He walked back from that declaration on Saturday (Oct 22), saying he did not mean to cut diplomatic ties with Washington.
He also said the US remains the Philippines’ “closest friend”.
Mr Russel said the US “welcomes a relaxation in relations” between the Philippines and China.
“It’s a mistake to think that improved relations between Manila and Beijing come at the expense of the US. That is not the way we think about it,” he said.
“We don’t want countries to chose between the US or China,” he added. “But we do want countries to have choices, to have autonomy to make their own decision in keeping with their own democratic value and keeping with international law.”
Mr Russel said the US “is also concerned about the loss of lives” in Mr Duterte’s anti-crime drive.
“We strongly support efforts against this scourge of drugs, and I explained the ways that the US can and does assist the Philippines in protecting your countries against the danger from illegal drugs that flow into your country from overseas,” he said.
Mr Duterte has been trying to engage China, as he steers the Philippines away from the US for reasons that involve both his political views and personal grudges.
He has bristled at US criticisms of the more than 3,400 extrajudicial killings by police and vigilantes that have blighted his war on drugs and criminals since he took office on June 30.
To show his displeasure, he has told US President Barack Obama to “go to hell”, and ended war games and sea patrols over contested waters in the South China Sea between the Philippines and the US.
Mr Duterte also still seethes over an episode 14 years ago when agents purportedly from the US Federal Bureau of Investigations spirited out of the Philippines an alleged US spy caught with explosives in his home city of Davao.
Mr Russel expressed hope that “deep roots between the American and Filipino people will ensure stability in our relationships over the long term”.
“For our part, the US remains a steady, and I hope a trusted, partner, a strong ally. We stand ready to honour our commitments, we stand by international law, and we stand by the Philippines,” he said.
Mr Russel is on a three-nation swing through South-east Asia that also includes Thailand and Cambodia.