President Rodrigo Duterte has said he is not severing diplomatic ties with the United States, back-pedalling on a brash declaration he made in China about cutting military and economic relations with his nation's long-time ally.
"You have to take my words in the context of what I've been saying all along. It's not a severance of ties. When you say severance of ties, you cut diplomatic ties. I cannot do that. It's in the best interest of my country that we maintain that relationship (with the US)," Mr Duterte said at a news briefing shortly after landing in Manila from Beijing early yesterday.
He was trying to clarify what he meant when he announced at a major business forum in Beijing a "separation" from the US.
"What I was saying is separation of foreign policy, that it need not dovetail with the foreign policy of America. That's what I meant. 'Sever' is to cut. 'Separate' is just to chart another way of doing things," he said.
Speaking at the Great Hall of the People on Thursday, the Philippine leader 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."
His clarification, however, failed to assuage concerns over the ambiguity of his foreign policy. The US Embassy in Manila said on Friday that the comments were "creating unnecessary uncertainty".
US Assistant State Secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel, who is in Manila as part of a previously scheduled trip to the region, is expected to meet Philippine security officials to get clarity.
Four senators from the opposition Liberal Party, meanwhile, sought a hearing to determine exactly where Mr Duterte's foreign policy is headed.
Senator Leila de Lima, Mr Duterte's top critic in Congress, suggested that he is seeking to transform the Philippines from a US puppet to a China stooge.
"He (Duterte) does not need to cut off diplomatic ties with the US to drive this country to ruin. All he has to do is go with China's 'ideological flow', turn socialist, and ruin our politically democratic and economically capitalist- based systems," she said.
Elaborating on Mr Duterte's clarification, Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay said "it implies breaking away from the debilitating mindset of dependency and subservience that has perpetuated our 'little brown brother' image to America".
Trade Minister Ramon Lopez said earlier that 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).
At the news briefing, Mr Duterte said he cannot completely disengage from Washington as there are more than three million Filipinos living in the US. He also acknowledged that a majority of the Philippines' population of over 100 million are still pro-American. "There are many Filipinos in the US. The people of my country are also not ready to accept (a break with the US)," he said.
A survey last year showed some 90 per cent of Filipinos love the US, more than most Americans. By comparison, one in two Filipinos said they still distrust China.