Duterte’s ‘separation’ double talk and bluster
CANBERRA—President Duterte assured Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the other Wednesday that he has not forged a military alliance with China and that he would insist on the rule of law in the resolution of the West Philippine Sea dispute.
Mr. Duterte said that he would seek a peaceful resolution to the dispute and that when the time comes for him and Beijing to discuss the matter, he would cite the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that invalidated China’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea. “Whether we like it or not, someday we’ll have to talk about it and present our side,” Mr. Duterte said. “I cannot go out of the arbitral ruling. I’m limited to what is written there…. There were no military alliances, no nothing, I said, only trade and commerce.”
The assurance was made during Mr. Duterte’s visit to Tokyo, apparently in an effort to calm concerns among the Philippines’ long-standing allies over his administration’s reliability in upholding Manila’s security treaties with them.
The concerns were sparked by the President’s statement during his four-day visit to China a week earlier, declaring the Philippines’ “separation from the United States,” which fueled alarm in Japan’s government and business circles. Japan is a staunch ally of the United States and hosts 50,000 US troops.
According to international media reports, Mr. Duterte also told Abe he would remain an ally of Japan: “You can rest assured, and I can give you my word, that we would stand by you when the time comes.” Also, he told the Japanese that his visit to China last week was all about economics.
But in a speech to Japanese businessmen at the start of the Tokyo visit, Mr. Duterte sent another contradictory signal that unsettled both Japan and the United States. “I have declared I will pursue an independent foreign policy. I want, maybe in the next two years, my country free of the presence of foreign military troops.” He even threatened to scrap defense pacts with the United States, if necessary.
He was referring to 100 US special forces advising on Philippine counterterrorism in Mindanao, and to the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca) that allows US military to access five Philippine military bases for positioning of warships and planes and storing of weapons and equipment, among others.
The Edca was signed by US and Philippine officials in 2014 amid increasingly aggressive incursion by China into the West Philippine Sea. But in his obsession “to be a friend” of China at the expense of the Philippines’ security pacts with the United States, Mr. Duterte reiterated last month that the joint US-Philippine marine landing exercises were the last in his six-year presidency. The annual joint maneuvers between US and Philippine forces are authorized under the Visiting Forces Agreement underpinned by the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the two allies. Mr. Duterte said he does not want arms and missiles established in the country: “I just want friendship with everybody,” a claim belied by the apparent tilt of his foreign policy toward China and hostile statements against the United States.
Although Japan depends on the United States for security, it has so far not responded to Mr. Duterte’s hysterical anti-US diatribes. Washington, too, has taken a calm approach to his anti-America rhetoric. “We’re going to take the long view,” US State Department spokesperson John Kirby said last Tuesday. “Mr. Duterte’s tirades against the United States were inexplicably at odds with the relationship the two countries continue to enjoy,” he said. “We’ve seen this rhetoric and then we’ve seen it walked back. We’re not going to react and respond to every bit of rhetoric. We’re going to work at this relationship.”
Although Mr. Duterte has called for an end to the joint exercises, he has not been specific. In fact, he seemed to have quickly backed off when, shortly thereafter, he promised to respect treaties signed by the Philippines and not to sever relations with Washington.
Amando Doronila was a regular columnist of the Inquirer from 1994 to May 2016.
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