Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced his “separation” from the United States on Thursday, declaring he had realigned with China as the two agreed to resolve their South China Sea dispute through talks.
Duterte made his comments in Beijing, where he is visiting with at least 200 business people to pave the way for what he calls a new commercial alliance as relations with longtime ally Washington deteriorate.
“In this venue, your honors, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States,” Duterte told Chinese and Philippine business people, to applause, at a forum in the Great Hall of the People attended by Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli.
“Both in military, not maybe social, but economics also. America has lost.”
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 in Manila, marks a reversal in foreign policy since the 71-year-old former mayor took office on June 30.
His trade secretary, Ramon Lopez, said $13.5 billion in deals would be signed during the China trip.
“I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and 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.
It’s the only way,” Duterte told his Beijing audience.
Duterte’s remarks will prompt fresh concern in the United States, where the Obama administration has seen Manila as an important ally in its “rebalance” of resources to Asia in the face of a rising China.
The administration agreed a deal with Duterte’s predecessor granting U.S. forces rotational access to bases in the Philippines and further doubts will be raised about the future of this arrangement.
In Washington, however, the White House stressed the traditional bonds between the United States and the Philippines in response to Duterte’s comments and stuck to a U.S. approach of seeking to play down his repeated verbal attacks.
“The U.S.-Philippine alliance is built on a 70-year history, rich people to people ties and a long list of shared security concerns,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters.
“We have not received any official requests from Filipino officials to alter any of our many issues where we bilaterally cooperate.”
Schultz said the White House does not view Manila’s relationship with China as a “zero sum game.”
“We believe that it’s in our national security interests when our partners and allies in the region have strong relationships with China,” he said.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands after a signing ceremony held in Beijing, China October 20, 2016. REUTERS/Ng Han Guan/Pool
A few hours after Duterte’s speech, his top economic policymakers released a statement saying that, while Asian economic integration was “long overdue”, that did not mean the Philippines was turning its back on the West.
“We will maintain relations with the West but we desire stronger integration with our neighbors,” said Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez and Economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia in a joint statement. “We share the culture and a better understanding with our region.”
RED CARPET WELCOME
China has pulled out all the stops to welcome Duterte, including a marching band complete with baton-twirling band master at his official greeting ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People, which is not extended to most leaders.
President Xi Jinping, meeting Duterte earlier in the day, called the visit a “milestone” in ties.
Xi told Duterte that China and the Philippines were brothers and they could “appropriately handle disputes”, though he did not mention the South China Sea in remarks made in front of reporters.
“I hope we can follow the wishes of the people and use this visit as an opportunity to push China-Philippines relations back on a friendly footing and fully improve things,” Xi said.
Following their meeting, during which Duterte said relations with China had entered a new “springtime”, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said the South China Sea issue was not the sum total of relations.
“The two sides agreed that they will do what they agreed five years ago, that is to pursue bilateral dialogue and consultation in seeking a proper settlement of the South China Sea issue,” Liu said.
China claims most of the energy-rich South China Sea through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. Neighbors Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.
In 2012, China seized the disputed Scarborough Shoal and denied Philippine fishermen access to its fishing grounds.
Liu said the shoal was not mentioned and he did not answer a question about whether Philippine fishermen would be allowed there.
He said both countries had agreed on coastguard and fisheries cooperation, but did not give details.(Reuters/NAN)