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Philippine President's Pivot to China Just Words - So Far

By Steve Herman October 20, 2016

American officials say they have gotten no formal notice from Manila following Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's announcement of a "separation" from the United States.

"We have not received any official requests from Filipino officials to alter any of our many issues where we bilaterally cooperate," White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters .

"It is inexplicably at odds with the very close relationship that we have with the Filipino people, as well as the government there on many different levels, not just from a security perspective," said State Department spokesman John Kirby. "We are going to be seeking an explanation of exactly what the president meant when he talked about separation from the U.S."

The State Department said Assistant Secretary Daniel Russel would visit Manila from Saturday through Tuesday. Kirby called the trip a a "long-scheduled, long-planned" visit.

Following high-level talks with Chinese leaders in Beijing, the Philippine leader – earlier in the day at a business forum – announced "my separation from the United States, both in military, not maybe social, but economics also."

The remark to the crowd of business people and Chinese officials triggered a roaring round of applause.

"America has lost now. I have 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," Duterte added. "It is the only way."

The radical foreign policy shift by the leader of a longtime U.S. ally in the Pacific will not throw off course America's pivot to Asia, Kirby insisted, but he noted "many nations in the region are concerned and baffled."

China a preferred option

Duterte, who took office at the end of June, said he prefers China because it does not go around insulting people, while Americans are "discourteous people."

"We Orientals are a very courteous race," the Philippine president also told his Chinese audience Thursday. Chuckling as he spoke, Duterte said that now he would be dependent on China for a long time.

After watching a video of the remarks, international law professor Julian Ku at Hofstra University tweeted that "Duterte looks like a supplicant."

To another audience Thursday – a group of Filipinos living in China – Duterte said it was "time to say goodbye" to the United States, adding, "I will not go to America anymore. I will just be insulted there."

"The real losers here, assuming he is serious, would be the Philippine people," Robert "Skipp" Orr Jr., former U.S. ambassador to the Manila-based Asian Development Bank, told VOA.

Orr's predecessor as ambassador to the ADB, Curtis Chin, said the United States "can take heart that President Duterte announced a separation and not a divorce."

Chin told VOA he remained optimistic about U.S.-Philippine relations in the long term, but he predicted the next president and secretary of state in Washington would "see some stormy times ahead" in their dealings with Manila.

Most Filipinos have positive views of America. There are deep economic ties. A 70-year-old treaty ensures the defense of the Philippines, which has a poorly trained and equipped military.

China and the Philippines are to sign $13.5 billion in deals before the visit concludes Friday, according to Philippine Treasury Secretary Ramon Lopez.

Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of dollars of investment money has flowed out of the Philippines since Duterte's election.

Foreign investment has been put on hold amid these "rather startling kinds of developments," the outgoing U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, Philip Goldberg, said in an interview in Manila on Thursday with the Rappler social news network.

"We've never heard language and that kind of rhetoric from a friend and ally," noted Goldberg, who, along with President Barack Obama, has been the target of personal insults hurled by Duterte.

China is willing to actively take part in the building of Philippine railways, city rail transport, highways, ports and other infrastructure, which will benefit the local people, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters Thursday. "The two should strengthen law enforcement and defense cooperation."

China's support

China has pledged support for Duterte's controversial and deadly war against drugs that has left more than 2,300 dead.

The enhanced cooperation with Beijing and Duterte's "separation" with Washington hand Chinese President Xi Jinping "a significant international
victory, and now the question is whether it can be sustained and what is the follow-through," said Nicholas Thomas, a professor at the City University of Hong Kong.

Xi and Duterte on Thursday agreed to a resumption of direct talks on disputes in the South China Sea, following years of rising tension. China, in 2012, seized Scarborough Shoal, a fishing ground that has become a key source of contention between the two countries.

"Filipinos want better lives and a safer and more prosperous nation. Duterte seems to be saying that China today, not the nation's longtime U.S. ally, is positioned to deliver on it," said Chin, also an Asia Fellow at the Milkin Institute. "The Philippines president, however, is playing with fire if he is seen in any way by Filipinos as ceding sovereignty to China in the South China Sea, known locally as the West Philippines Sea."

The Philippines was granted independence by the United States in 1946.

The island nation was a colony of Spain from the 16th century to the end of the 19th century, when it was taken by the United States at the end of the Spanish-American War. Japan occupied the Philippines from 1942 until its defeat in World War II three years later.

VOA correspondent William Ide contributed reporting from Beijing.

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