MANILA, Philippines - President Rodrigo Duterte said early on Saturday (Oct 22) he was not severing diplomatic ties with the United States, backpedalling on a brash declaration he made in China about cutting military and economic relations with his nation’s longtime 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.
He was attempting to clarify what he meant when he announced at a major business forum in China a “separation” with 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 (Oct 20), Mr Duterte declared: “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 aides later issued a flurry of statements to appease growing unease over those comments.
Trade Minister Ramon Lopez said Mr Duterte “did not talk about separation. In terms of economic ties, we are not stopping trade, investment with America”.
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,” he said.
Mr Duterte said he cannot completely disengage from Washington, as there are more than three million Filipinos currently 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 is 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.
The US is the Philippines’ third-largest trading partner, with US$16.5 billion in annual trade. Some 1.2 million Filipinos are also working for American outsourcing companies.
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 criticism of the more than 3,000 extrajudicial killings by police and viglantes since he took office on June 30 and began a bloody war on crime and narcotics.
To show his displeasure, he has called US President Barack Obama a “son of a whore”, and ended war games and sea patrols between the Philippines and the US.
Mr Duterte also still seethes over an episode 14 years ago when he was mayor of Davao city involving an American named Michael Terrence Meiring. On May 16, 2002, a metal box inside Meiring’s hotel room exploded, mangling the self-styled treasure hunter’s legs.
Despite severe injuries and charges of explosives possession against him, Meiring vanished from his hospital room three days later. Witnesses said men waving FBI badges took him in the dark of night and flew him out of the country.
Mr Duterte was outraged that the US would help a criminal flee the Philippines. He also fanned speculations that Meiring was involved in covert operations to create instability in the war-torn southern island group of Mindanao to get the government to sign off on more US military aid. Meiring died in 2012, without disclosing what happened.
Mr Duterte considered it a disrespectful act by a superpower that ran roughshod over his territory, and he has since grabbed at every opportunity to make the US pay for that unforgivable affront.
He again dug up that incident on Saturday, as he showed no signs of easing up on his anti-American insults and broadsides.
Mr Duterte’s efforts to engage China, months after a tribunal in the Hague ruled that Beijing did not have historic rights to the South China Sea in a case brought by the previous administration, marks a reversal in foreign policy that has baffled Washington.
Mr Duterte said in Beijing that he had “realigned (himself) in your ideological flow”.
“Maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to (President Vladimir) Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world – China, Philippines and Russia,” he said. “It’s the only way.”